How Fitzgerald moved from a nursery rhyme to a song about cocaine says more about jazz than it does Fitzgerald.
‘The First Lady of Song’ Ella Fitzgerald would have turned 100 on Tuesday April 25: institutions from the Library of Congress to the Grammy Museum will be honoring her amazing contributions to the jazz canon.
It will be interesting to see if any tributes mention Fitzgerald’s ‘Wacky Dust’ her song about cocaine.
In the 1930s – just as Fitzgerald was getting her start – jazz was under fire for its purported ties to drug culture.
The 1936 anti-drug film ‘Reefer Madness’ featured party scenes of young people listening to jazz and ragtime while smoking marijuana.
A year later Harry Anslinger the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics published ‘Marijuana, Assassin of Youth’ which pinned the use of drugs on a culture of unscrupulous partying – with big band jazz as its soundtrack.
In this climate an ascendant singer named Ella Fitzgerald sought to take the opposite tack and cultivated a reputation as the ‘girl next door’.
Fitzgerald walked the fine line between being understood as a jazz artist and an entertainer.
Two recordings from the beginning of her career signal this tension.
‘A-Tisket, a-Tasket’ and ‘Wacky Dust’ were both released in 1938.
One tune would go on to become a signature hit.
The other would be largely forgotten – a side note to an otherwise squeaky-clean career.