Van Alexander, Composer of ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket,’ Dies at 100
Van Alexander, a composer and arranger who adapted a nursery rhyme into “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” which became Ella Fitzgerald’s breakout hit in 1938, died on July 19 at a hospital near his home in Los Angeles. He was 100.
His death was confirmed by his daughter Joyce Harris.
Mr. Alexander began his career arranging for big bands in the 1930s and later composed for film and television. He worked with Benny Goodman and Billie Holiday, among other musicians, and scored films, like “Babyface Nelson” (1957), which starred Mickey Rooney, and “Strait-Jacket” (1964), with Joan Crawford. His television credits included “Bewitched,” “Dennis the Menace” and “The Dean Martin Show.” He led his own band from 1939 to 1944.
His most memorable collaboration came early in his career, after he had landed a job arranging for the drummer and bandleader Chick Webb when he was just 19. Fitzgerald, who was singing with Webb’s band, approached him with the idea of adapting an old nursery rhyme into a swinging jazz number.
“I put the children’s tune into a 32-bar song,” Mr. Alexander told Marc Myers in an interview on his blog JazzWax in 2012. “I also wrote novelty lyrics, including the exchanges between Ella and the band.”
“A-Tisket, A-Tasket” became a jazz standard and a crossover success for Webb and Fitzgerald, who is also credited as a writer on the song. Mr. Alexander, who went by Al Feldman at the time, embraced childhood themes for another song, “Gotta Pebble in My Shoe,” which Fitzgerald also recorded.
Alexander Van Vliet Feldman was born in Harlem on May 2, 1915. His father was a pharmacist, and his mother was a classical pianist who began teaching him to play when he was 6.
He played the drums and cymbals in the marching band at the former George Washington High School in Upper Manhattan and began writing arrangements for six- and seven-piece ensembles. As a teenager, he also studied music at Columbia University and orchestration and theory with the composer Otto Cesana and frequented nightclubs like the Savoy Ballroom, where he met Webb.
In 1938, he married Beth Baremore. She died in 2011.
He became a bandleader after Webb’s death in 1939 and began calling himself Van Alexander professionally after Eli Oberstein, the head of RCA Victor Records, suggested that he adopt a more marketable name.
In 1945, as the big band era declined, he moved to California. He received a lifetime achievement award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers in 2002.
In addition to Ms. Harris, he is survived by another daughter, Lynn Tobias; four grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
Mr. Alexander also wrote popular books about making music and taught his craft to composers, including Johnny Mandel.
“If it wasn’t for Van, I don’t know what I’d be doing,” Mr. Mandel said at a 100th birthday celebration for Mr. Alexander in May.
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