Fitzgerald, Ella (Jane )
- Jessica Bissett Perea
(b Newport News, VA, April 25, 1917; d Beverly Hills, CA, June 15, 1996). American jazz singer. Ella Jane Fitzgerald was raised in Yonkers, New York, and from an early age developed an affinity for performing, despite personal hardships including childhood poverty, not knowing her biological father, and her mother’s sudden death in 1932. Although her first love was dancing, her early vocal influences included popular musicians such as Connee Boswell of the Boswell Sisters, Leo Watson, and Louis Armstrong. In 1934 a 17-year-old Fitzgerald entered and won the Amateur Night competition at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, and from there began singing in various Harlem clubs such as the Savoy. In 1935 Fitzgerald met drummer and bandleader Chick Webb. Webb was initially reluctant to hire the young singer; but by 1937 Fitzgerald’s voice was featured on over half of his band’s repertoire. In 1938 Fitzgerald recorded her first number-one hit with the band, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” a swinging nursery rhyme to which she also wrote the lyrics. After Webb’s untimely death in 1939 she led the band (renamed “Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Band”) until 1942 when she signed with Decca and manager Milt Gabler to become a freelance solo singer. On Decca she recorded both jazz and commercially oriented songs, ranging from novelty tunes to swing to bop charts. She collaborated with the Ink Spots, Louis Jordan, the Delta Rhythm Boys, and Louis Armstrong.
In 1946 Fitzgerald began touring with Dizzy Gillespie’s band. Although steeped in swing and popular music styles, she quickly developed an affinity for bebop under Gillespie’s tutelage. Fitzgerald’s blossoming virtuosity as a bop improviser is documented on recordings of “Flying Home,” “Air Mail Special,” “Lady Be Good,” and “How High the Moon.” In 1947 she married Gillespie’s bassist Ray Brown—her second husband, to whom she was married the longest (from 10 Dec 1947 to 28 Aug 1953), and with whom she adopted their son Ray, Jr. In 1949 Fitzgerald joined jazz impresario Norman Granz’s “Jazz at the Philharmonic” concert tours, which opened to sellout crowds at New York’s Carnegie Hall and included performances across the United States, Canada, Europe, and later Japan. As her international following and popularity expanded, Fitzgerald was able to persuade Decca to allow her shift directions and the freedom to record an LP of mostly ballads with pianist Ellis Larkins. Ella Sings Gershwin (1950) stands as a pinnacle achievement from her Decca years and features her marvelous interpretations of popular American songs.
Fitzgerald’s association with Granz marked a significant turning point in her career, as she was consistently booked for more prestigious national and international stages and sellout audiences. By 1953 Granz became Fitzgerald’s manager and sought to fully secure her status as one of America’s leading jazz performers. As soon as Granz negotiated her release from Decca in 1956, he signed Fitzgerald to his newly formed Verve label. Over the course of a decade with Verve Fitzgerald maintained a busy touring schedule—often on the road for over ten months out of a year—and a prolific, albeit intensive, recording schedule—releasing as many as six studio and/or live albums per year. Even after Granz sold his interest in Verve Records in 1959, he continued to serve as Fitzgerald’s manager and booked roles for her in several films and appearances on TV variety shows including The Bing Crosby Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, and The Tonight Show. In 1967 Granz retired temporarily, after which point Fitzgerald spent five years recording for the Atlantic, Capitol, and Reprise labels to varying degrees of commercial or critical acclaim. Fitzgerald reunited with Granz in 1972 when he founded Pablo Records. She recorded over twenty more albums with the label. In 1979 she was inducted into the Down Beat Magazine Hall of Fame and received a Kennedy Center lifetime achievement award. Widely recognized as a cultural ambassador, Fitzgerald received the National Medal of Arts from President Ronald Reagan in 1987, and in 1992 president George H.W. Bush presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest non-military honor.
Fitzgerald underwent quintuple coronary bypass surgery in 1986, at which time she was also diagnosed with diabetes. As her health continued to decline over the course of the following decade, she rarely made public appearances—she made her last recording in 1991 and gave her last live performance in 1993—and died at her Beverly Hills home in 1996 at the age of 79. Known as the “First Lady of Song,” Fitzgerald’s artistic output over the course of her six-decade career has secured her position as one of the most popular and prolific singers in 20th century American music history. In her lifetime Fitzgerald won 13 Grammy Awards and sold over 40 million albums. She was also awarded honorary doctorate degrees from Dartmouth and Talladega Colleges, and Howard and Yale Universities. The US Postal Service honored her posthumously with the release of her commemorative stamp in 2007.
Duke Ellington once described Fitzgerald as musically “beyond category,” a phrase to which her extensive and varied career can unquestionably attest. Indeed, Fitzgerald’s vocal style is immediately recognizable. Her enviable traits include a bright or youthful timbre, pure intonation across a vocal range that spanned three octaves, impeccable phrasing and diction, and “horn-like” improvisational skills and rhythmic dexterity. Although the early popularity of scat singing is typically associated with Louis Armstrong’s influential 1926 recording of “Heebie Jeebies,” Fitzgerald dominated the craft of bop vocal improvisation in her own right. Over the course of a single song Fitzgerald would weave together scores of quotations (a common bop convention) from seemingly disparate milieus via expertly crafted harmonic lines. A prime example is her live recording of “How High the Moon” on Mack the Knife: Ella in Berlin (1960). This version features essentially the same arrangement she had performed for over a decade, but it was substantially extended in comparison to most recorded versions (seven minutes as opposed to just over three). It was also more developed on account of Fitzgerald’s five and a half minute scat solo, in which she quotes nearly 20 other songs, ranging from “Ornithology” to “Stormy Weather” to “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.”
She was also renowned for mimicking other jazz greats (most notably Armstrong) as well as instruments (such as singing bass lines). In fact, her legendary rendition of the title track from Mack the Knife: Ella in Berlin (1960)—a song from Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera (1928) that was popularized by Armstrong and Bobby Darin in the mid-1950s—where she forgot the lyrics and improvised new ones, displays a spontaneity and inventiveness that charmed and endeared audiences. This album subsequently received two Grammy Awards upon its release: best album by a female singer and best song (“Mack the Knife”) by a female. Perhaps the most pivotal and enduring accomplishment in establishing Fitzgerald’s crossover appeal and prominence within the mainstream lay in her famous Songbook recordings—a series of eight studio albums covering over 240 songs central to the “Great American Songbook.” Each album is devoted to 20th-century composers including Cole Porter (1956), Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart (1956), Duke Ellington (1957), Irving Berlin (1958), George and Ira Gershwin (1959), Harold Arlen (1961), Jerome Kern (1963), and Johnny Mercer (1964). Fitzgerald’s exceptional interpretations of these songbooks—with their elaborate orchestrations and seldom-heard verses—are considered by many to be one of the most remarkable documents of American popular song. The collection’s continuing appeal is evidenced by The Complete Ella Fitzgerald Song Books on Verve, a box set reissue that won two Grammy Awards in 1994 (Best Historical Album and Best Recording Package).
- Lullabies of Birdland (Decca, 1955); Sings The Cole Porter Songbook (Verve, 1956); Sings The Rodgers and Hart Songbook (Verve, 1956); with Louis Armstrong Ella and Louis (Verve, 1956); Like Someone in Love (Verve, 1957); Sings The Duke Ellington Songbook (Verve, 1957); Sings The Gershwin Songbook (Verve, 1957); Sings The Irving Berlin Songbook (Verve, 1958); Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Songbook (Verve, 1959); Ella Swings Lightly (Verve, 1959); Mack the Knife—Ella In Berlin (Verve, 1960); Ella Returns to Berlin (Verve, 1961); Sings The Harold Arlen Songbook (Verve, 1961); Ella Swings Brightly with Nelson (Verve, 1962);Sings The Jerome Kern Songbook (Verve, 1963); with Count Basie Ella And Basie! (Verve, 1963); Sings The Johnny Mercer Songbook (Verve, 1965); with Duke Ellington Ella At Duke’s Place (Verve, 1966); with Ellington Ella and Duke at the Côte D’Azure (Verve, 1966); Fine and Mellow (Pablo, 1974); Ella—at the Montreux Jazz Festival (Pablo, 1975); with Basie A Perfect Match: Basie and Ella (Pablo, 1979); The Best Is Yet to Come (Pablo, 1982); All That Jazz (Pablo, 1990)
- J. Jungermann: Ella Fitzgerald: ein Porträt (Wetzlar, 1960)
- S. Colin: Ella: the Life and Times of Ella Fitzgerald (London, 1986)
- A. Lacombe: Ella Fitzgerald (Montpellier, France, 1989)
- G.M. Fidelman: First Lady of Song: Ella Fitzgerald for the Record (New York, 1994)
- L. Gourse: The Ella Fitzgerald Companion: Seven Decades of Commentary (New York, 1998)
- J.W. Johnson: Ella Fitzgerald: a Complete Annotated Discography (Jefferson, NC, 2001)
- S. Nicholson: Ella Fitzgerald: the Complete Biography (New York, 2004)