If you want to rank jazz singers, there’s little question that Ella Fitzgerald is probably going to end up on top. We can debate the Ella vs. Sarah, and should mention Joe Williams and Frank Sinatra and a dozen others, but in all likelihood, Ella knocks them all down, every time.
But she is hardly ever listed as “favorite” when I ask my students their favorite singer. That’s because there are two different characteristics at play. Timeless and Personal.
Even the most timeless musician might not make the music that speaks to you most personally. And what speaks to you personally this year might not last through five years of growth.
Ella has proved she’s timeless. Her recordings don’t lose luster as time passes.
But if a young person picks a favorite jazz singer today, she’s far more likely to mention Cécile McLorin Savant, or Sarah Gazarek, or Esperanza Spalding or Kurt Elling. These singers are making music that is personal and speaks to today.
Will this personal music last and become timeless? That’s a harder question. Certainly, there was a time when Ella’s music was personal and of the time; but there were many more singers who also made music at that time, but who are not revered today.
Regardless, it’s clear that your favorite musician, particularly as you develop, is going to be one who speaks to your present condition – timeless or not, their music is personal.
And the biggest question of all: how do you make music, as Ella did, that is personal at the time and grows into something timeless?
Michael Jackson. Prince The Beatles. Beethoven. Ella. They made music of their time that grew in timelessness with each passing year. This is the mark of greatness, and a goal to aspire to.