Ella Fitzgerald was born in 1917 and died in 1996. Over the course of her life, she became one of the most famous and best-loved jazz singers in history. She was a gifted performer and a master of improvisation, and her music has inspired generations of musicians and fans. In this blog post, we’ll take a look at the life and career of Ella Fitzgerald, from her early days singing in Harlem clubs to her final performances on stage. We’ll also explore some of her biggest hits, including “Summertime,” “A-Tisket A-Tasket,” and “Hey Lady Be Good.” So come along as we journey through the life of one of America’s most iconic singers!
It all began in the modest town of Newport News, Virginia, on April 25, 1917, when Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born. Shortly after her birth, her father left the family and Ella grew up in a single-parent home. Fitzgerald’s family moved to New York City in the 1920s and settled in the Yonker suburb near her aunt’s home. At home she always heard pop music, especially by Arthur “The Street Singer,” and Ella discovered her passion for pop music. Though not wealthy, her mother encouraged her through a few piano lessons.
The Discovery of The Rising Star
When she was a child, Ella Fitzgerald wanted to become a dancer. In the early 1930s, she and her friends loved watching street performances in Harlem. The girls later discovered that popular black musicians played in large clubs during the weekend.
During weekdays, concert halls like Apollo Theatre and Harlem Opera House would invite amateurs to take the stage. They would compete for the audience’s favour to win prize money and hope to be discovered. Ella signed up for the amateurs’ night dance. She took a chance at being booed off the stage if the audience did not like her performance.
On that day in 1934 at the New York City’s Apollo Theater, she could not dance due to stage fright. As the audience started growing restless, Ella spontaneously started singing in a similar style to jazz vocalist Connie Boswell. The Orchestra started to accompany her in the singing, and she became more confident to complete the song as the crowds applauded and gave her a standing ovation. The 16-year Fitzgerald had found her destiny and surprisingly won her first prize on that stage!
Since that time, she participated in many competitions and began to attract the attention of the music industry. One evening she was given a chance to perform for the drummer Chick Webb. This band leader needed some convincing initially because he did not want a singer in his band. When he listened to Ella’s voice, he was impressed.
In 1935, Fitzgerald joined the Chick Webb Orchestra, and Webb quickly became her mentor. When Ella’s mother died, Webb became her guardian for the minor singer. Web progressively introduced this protégé to the music world. Still, at first, he restricted her repertoire to pop music. In 1936 Fitzgerald demonstrated her capability by replacing the already successful Billie Holiday when she recorded a ballad with Teddy Wilson. From that time, her mentor allowed her to sing ballads as well.
Becoming a Jazz Icon
Webb passed away in 1939, and Fitzgerald took over the band’s leadership until it broke up in 1942.
She started soloing in cabarets and theatres and made international tours with pop and jazz stars like Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, The Mills Brothers, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and the Ink Spots. During this period, she recorded novelty songs. Fitzgerald’s career started picking up in 1951. She recorded with the legendary Louis Armstrong and several collaborations with the bebop initiators.
Her status dramatically rose in the 1950s when the jazz impresario Norman Granz became her manager. Granz founded a record label by the name Verve, especially for Ella. She demonstrated her deep and remarkable interpretive skills of songbooks, which are of the best jazz instrumental support. She recorded 19 volume series of “songbooks” from 1956 to 1964 in which she interpreted nearly 250 outstanding songs done by Richard Rodgers, George Gershwin, Karla Porter, Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, and Jerome Kern.
She had excellent diction, but her lyrics rendition was intuitive rather than studied. For many years Fitzgerald made Granz’s jazz more attractive to many on the Philharmonic concert tours, and she became one of the best-selling jazz vocal recording artists in history. Fitzgerald started appearing in films, like Pete Kelly’s Blues of 1955, on television screens and in jazz concert halls worldwide. The singer also recorded many concert albums and produced memorable duet versions of Porgy and Bess in 1957 with Armstrong.
A Living Legend
The 1970s and 80s saw Ella’s music career rise to a climax. The popularity of this ageing diva was as strong as ever, and her career showered her with honours and awards.
Fitzgerald started experiencing serious health problems in the 1970s, but she continued to perform periodically even after undergoing heart surgery in 1986. She performed her last concert in New York in 1991.
In 1993 her career was curtailed due to the complications stemming from diabetes that led to the amputation of her two legs below the knees.
In her jazz career, she garnered 14 Grammy Awards, including one for lifetime achievements. Fitzgerald also received a Kennedy Center honour for lifetime achievement in 1979 and the national arts medal in 1987. Ella Jane Fitzgerald died in Beverly Hills, California on June 15, 1996.
Final Take Away
Fitzgerald Ella, the queen of jazz, was a natural talent with an exceptional technique for modulating her voice like a musical instrument. Fitzgerald’s clear tone and wide vocal range, complimented by her mastery of harmony and rhythm made her a jazz maestro. She was also an excellent ballad singer and was indeed the undisputed queen of jazz!
If you’re interested in listening to jazz music by the greatest voices in the genre, we invite you to visit our Lincoln Jazz Café!