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The Indian Who Discovered Ella


“Boss, this girl has something,” drummer Chick Webb’s male singer (seated on the left) told him. “You must hear her.” Webb couldn’t see the need for that. Though he cut one of the strangest sights in jazz – a drummer bent over by spinal tuberculosis, with partially paralysed legs – Webb was one of the earliest legends of swing. In 1931, by the time he was 26, he was leading the house band at the famous Savoy Ballroom in Harlem and was, in the words of his contemporaries, “the daddy of them all”. He simply couldn’t see why he needed a girl singer.

But his front man was persistent and brought over a singer he’d heard at the Harlem Opera House. The drummer was, of course, bowled over by the 16-year-old Ella Fitzgerald and she spurred the Chick Webb band on to even greater success. Young Bardu Ali, who had discovered Fitzgerald, didn’t do badly either. He would go on to lead his own band, the Bardu Ali Orchestra, and eventually open a rhythm and blues club in Los Angeles. No one could quite have predicted this for the boy who had been born Bahadour Ali, the son of an adventurous embroidery  trader from the Hoogly region in India.

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