Whether you know her as First Lady of Song, Queen of Jazz or Lady Ella, Ella Fitzgerald remains to be one of the most iconic, prolific and recognizable voices in jazz. Her career spanned decades, from her first appearance at the Apollo during the Great Depression to her final concert at Carnegie Hall in 1991. Fitzgerald persevered through poverty and discrimination to forge a legacy that is as timeless as her voice.
Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born in 1917 in Newport News, Virginia, in a time and place where women were denied the right to vote, and segregation was the law of the land. All throughout her formal schooling, she proved herself to be an exemplary student. Fitzgerald grew up listening to jazz, emulating the musical stylings of the Boswell Sisters, and took an interest in dance. But after her mother’s death in 1932, Fitzgerald’s life fell into a downward spiral. She moved to Harlem to live with her aunt, began skipping school and even worked as a brothel lookout. She was placed in the Colored Orphan Asylum and later moved to a state reformatory school where she eventually escaped and ultimately ended up homeless.
Fitzgerald sang on the streets of Harlem to survive, but her debut performance at one of the earliest Amateur Nights at New York’s famous Apollo Theater was the stuff Hollywood movies are made of and would signal a change in her life’s path.
The year was 1934. A disheveled and nervous 17-year-old Fitzgerald took the stage. The audience was restless. She intended to perform a dance routine but felt her dancing couldn’t stack up to the acts before her. She changed her mind and asked the band to play Hoagy Carmichael’s “Judy.” The crowd fell silent as Fitzgerald’s melodic voice filled the theater. They wanted an encore and Fitzgerald obliged with her rendition of the Boswell Sister’s “The Object of My Affections.” Fitzgerald won first place and the grand prize of $25.00. Arranger and saxophonist Benny Carter was in the band that night. In awe of this diamond in the rough’s natural talent, Carter took Fitzgerald under his wing and introduced her to the people that would forever change the trajectory of her career.
After winning a chance to perform for a week with the Tiny Bradshaw band at the Harlem Opera House in 1935, Fitzgerald met drummer and bandleader Chick Webb. Webb had already hired male singer Charlie Linton for the band, but after a successful test run with Fitzgerald at a Yale University dance, Webb hired Fitzgerald to tour with his band.
In 1936, Fitzgerald began singing her rendition of “(If You Can’t Sing It) You Have to Swing It” and scatted her way into the hearts of her fans. But her playful, jazzy take of the classic nursery rhyme “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” in 1938 skyrocketed Fitzgerald’s career. Selling one million copies, the album hit number one and stayed on top of the charts for 17 weeks straight. And the rest, they say, is history.
From singing on the streets of Harlem to concert halls and stages all over the world, Fitzgerald’s voice defined jazz. She could scat like no other, out-horn a trumpet, and hit both high and low notes with crystal clarity. Songs like “It’s Only a Paper Moon” and “Oh Lady Be Good” were catchy and infectious while songs like “Summertime” and “Misty” were soulful and heart-wrenching. And songs like “Come Rain Or Come Shine” and “The Very Thought of You” perfectly captured what is was like to fall in love.
In 1939, after the passing of mentor and bandleader Chick Webb, Fitzgerald took on the helm as a bandleader. Renaming Webb’s band “Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Orchestra,” she would become the first African- American female in history to lead a band. They recorded a staggering 150 songs together over a span of seven years.
In addition to performing with her own band, Fitzgerald also performed with jazz greats like Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Dizzy Gillespie. Fitzgerald’s most iconic of duets was with fellow jazz legend, Louis Armstrong. His voice was rough and gritty, her voice was sweet and pure, and the two together made magic. Whether they were spending “April in Paris” dancing “Cheek to Cheek”, or staying in because “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”; the music they made together transcended time and changed history.
Some of Fitzgerald’s most notable work was her collection of songbooks. In 1959, Fitzgerald recorded the “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Song Book.” Her soaring voice took flight in classics like “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”, “’S Wonderful”, “I’ve Got a Crush On You” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” She was at the height of her musical ability and even Ira Gershwin remarked, “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.”
In the mid- 80’s, Fitzgerald’s health began to steadily decline. She suffered from Diabetes and several other health conditions as a result. In 1993, she had to have both of her legs amputated below the knee. She passed away June 15, 1996, in her home just one year shy of turning 80.
Ella Fitzgerald was a living testament to the strength of the human spirit. She survived the Great Depression and homelessness, went toe to toe with discrimination, and became one of the most influential singers of her lifetime. She overcame adversity to win 14 Grammy awards and sell over 40 million albums over the course of her career. She was a trailblazer and an inspiration who changed the course of jazz history and will forever be an icon.
One more thing: I couldn’t write an article about Ella Fitzgerald without mentioning the impact she had on my life. When I was a kid living in Bayside, Queens, my dad made me a mixtape (back when mixtapes were still a thing) with jazz songs he felt I needed to know. Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong’s “Cheek to Cheek” was one of those songs. From the very first note, at the sake of sounding dramatic, my life would never be the same. My world opened to the music of eras before me, songs of the past that influenced countless musicians. When I moved to California with my mom and step-dad, I took that mixtape with me. I listened to it every day. I could recite every word of every song. I memorized every trumpet solo, every saxophone solo, every scat. Ella’s voice became home and listening to her made me feel closer to my dad and forever influenced my love for music. Thank you, Dad. And thank you, Ella.