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Fitzgerald, Ella (Jane)free

  • J. Bradford Robinson

(b Newport News, VA, April 25, 1917; d Beverly Hills, CA, June 15, 1996). American jazz and popular singer. She was an illegitimate child who never knew her father, and was brought up in Yonkers, New York. After her mother died in 1932, she lived with an aunt and then briefly at an orphanage, in Harlem. Having run away from the orphanage, she was homeless when in November 1934 she won an amateur contest at the Apollo Theatre. This led to an engagement in March 1935 with Chick Webb's band, and she soon became a celebrity of the swing era with performances such as A-tisket, A-tasket (1938, Decca) and Undecided (1939, Decca). When Webb died in 1939, Fitzgerald took over the direction of the band, which she led for three years. She then embarked on a solo career, issuing commercial and jazz recordings, and in 1946 began an association with Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic which eventually brought her a large international following. She also sang in a jazz group led by her husband, Ray Brown (1948–52). Early in 1956 Fitzgerald severed her longstanding connection with Decca to join Granz's newly founded Verve label. Among their first projects was a series of ‘songbooks’ dedicated to major American songwriters (Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book, 1956; Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book, 1956–7; Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Song Book, 1959). The series made use of superior jazz-inflected arrangements by Nelson Riddle and others and succeeded in attracting an extremely large audience, establishing Fitzgerald among the supreme interpreters of the popular-song repertory. Thereafter her career was managed by Granz, and she became one of the best-known international jazz performers; she issued many recordings for Granz's labels and made frequent appearances at jazz festivals with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Oscar Peterson, Tommy Flanagan and Joe Pass.

For decades Fitzgerald was considered the quintessential female jazz singer, and she drew copious praise from admirers as diverse as Charlie Parker and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Her voice was small and somewhat girlish in timbre, but these disadvantages were offset by an extremely wide range (from d to c‴) which she commanded with a remarkable agility and an unfailing sense of swing. This enabled her to give performances that rivalled those of the best jazz instrumentalists in their virtuosity, particularly in her improvised scat solos, for which she was justly famous (for an example see Scat singing). Unlike trained singers she showed strain about the break in her voice (d″ and beyond) which, however, she used to expressive purpose in the building of climaxes. Fitzgerald also had a gift for mimicry that allowed her to imitate other well-known singers (from Louis Armstrong to Aretha Franklin) as well as jazz instruments. As an interpreter of popular songs, she was limited by a certain innate cheerfulness from handling drama and pathos convincingly, but was unrivalled in her rendition of light material and for her ease in slipping in and out of the jazz idiom. She influenced countless American popular singers of the post-swing period and also international performers such as the singer Miriam Makeba.

Bibliography

  • J. Jungermann: Ella Fitzgerald: ein Porträt (Wetzlar, 1960)
  • R. Ambor: Ella: ein Bildband (Hamburg, 1961)
  • L. Feather: From Satchmo to Miles (New York, 1972)
  • H. Pleasants: The Great American Popular Singers (New York, 1974)
  • S. Colin: Ella: the Life and Times of Ella Fitzgerald (London, 1986)
  • R. Nolden: Ella Fitzgerald: ihr Leben, ihre Musik, ihre Schallplatten (Gauting, 1986)
  • A. Lacombe: Ella Fitzgerald (Montpellier, 1988)
  • J. Haskins: Ella Fitzgerald: a Life through Jazz (Sevenoaks, 1991)
  • S. Nicholson: Ella Fitzgerald (London, 1993)
  • G.M. Fidelman: First Lady of Song: Ella Fitzgerald for the Record (New York, 1994)
  1. Collection of scores held at US-Bu