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Ella Fitzgerald

The First Lady of Song. The Queen of Jazz. Lady Ella. These superlatives are certainly worthy of this month’s figure, Ella Fitzgerald. Revered for her powerful multi octave vocal range (three to be precise), her expressive range from tender balladeer to ferocious swinger, and her always-generous love for her music that enveloped her audiences, Ella was the first Black American woman to win a Grammy and compiled an extensive 200 plus album discography. She has won 13 Grammy Awards and sold an estimated 40 million records worldwide. As a tribute to her would-be 100th birthday on April 25, 2017, we take a look at the life and work of this titan of Jazz.

Ella Fitzgerald was born into a somewhat rocky household in Newport News, VA on the 25th of April 1917. Her parents, joined in common law marriage, separated shortly after he birth. She moved with her mother to upstate New York where the family had rough times financially. Young Ella worked a multitude of shady positions such as “running numbers” and serving as a lookout for a brothel in order to assist her families’ struggling finances.

Strangely enough, Fitzgerald intended to become a dancer. However at a 1934 amateur contest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, her hopes were dashed as the act before her performed a dance routine intimidated her. She ultimately sang the Hoagy Carmichael tune “Judy.“ The once rabble-rousing and cursing crowd were floored by her vocal abilities, demanding an encore. She followed this by “The Object of My Affection.” She won first place in that competition, thus beginning her rise to stardom.

Her first brush with fame followed almost immediately after her performance at the Apollo. In 1938, she released her first number one hit “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” with the brilliant Chick Webb Orchestra. In the course of her life, she would collaborate with the likes of Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington among others. While still in her teens, she was the leader of her own side band, Ella Fitzgerald and Her Savoy Eight.

By the 1950s, she continued to find commercial success due to her talents as a vocalist. After years with Decca Records, Ella became a core artist with Verve Records, founded and run by her longtime manager Norman Granz. Her Verve releases include many beloved classics, notably the Songbooks series celebrating the great composers of American popular song. In particular, 1958 was a watershed year for her career, as she acquired two Grammy awards: Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book and Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Song Book for best individual jazz performance and best female vocal performance respectively. In 1960, she again topped the charts with “Mack the Knife”, recorded live before an ecstatic crowd in Berlin as she makes up new lyrics to Kurt Weill’s melody. That session closed with her immortal scatting on “How High the Moon”, and stands out among a large and unparalleled collection of live recordings. Her star turns with both small and large ensembles continued well into the 1980s. In 1974, she performed with both Frank Sinatra and Count Basie in a series of concert performances.

Her career wound down through the 1980’s as her health declined. Of one of her final performances in 1991, the great Will Friedwald writes in A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers:

“ …at the end of that concert, I and everyone else wandered out of that enormous room somewhat dazed. The only thing we could be sure of was that we had just witnessed the greatest performance of our lives – if probably not of hers. It was hard to imagine that she had ever sounded any better or held an audience more firmly in the grip of her hand. She entered and left in a wheelchair, but she remained the First Lady of Jazz, of song, of music, of spiritual essence. As great as she was on records, in person she had a warm th and a glow that were not reproducible by electronic media of any sort.” (page 179)

Ella Fitzgerald passed away in 1996 at the age of 79.

Ella on video:

Mack The Knife:

The Lady is a Tramp (with Frank Sinatra, from A Man and His Music, 1974):

Summertime (1968)

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