Fembio Special: Black History
(Ella Jane Fitzgerald)
born 25 April 1917 in Newport News, Virginia, USA
died 15 June 1996 in Beverly Hills, CA
US-American Jazz singer; "First Lady of Song"
100th birthday on 25 April 2017
25th anniversary of death on 15th June 2021
As a girl in a poor neighborhood of New York, Ella Fitzgerald told her playmates: “Someday you’re going to see me in the headlines. I’m going to be famous.” (Nicholson 5) Unlikely as it seemed at the time, the enthusiastic young performer would eventually realize her own prophecy and become America’s “First Lady of Song,” maintaining a career as top jazz singer through six decades and in styles from swing to bebop and pop. As her biographer Stuart Nicholson writes: “No other artist in jazz has enjoyed such unanimous approbation over such a long period from both public and critics….” (2).
Ella was blessed with a huge talent – a singular purity of voice, perfect intonation, clarity of diction, harmonic imagination, amazing memory and rhythmic sensibility – but her absolute love of singing and commitment to performing despite obstacles were almost equally important to her success. As a black woman in a white man’s world she experienced both racism and sexism in her career. But unlike her contemporary and sometime rival Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald never descended into the world of drugs or alcohol, and her singing does not reveal the inner identification with tormented love or suffering that Holiday is so famous for. For Ella the music itself is foremost; her straightforward, direct approach to the song reveals the joy she experienced in performing.
Early years: great talent, heavy obstacles
Ella was the first child of Tempie (Temperance) and William Fitzgerald, both of whom could read and write and worked, Tempie as a laundress. Her father abandoned the family while Ella was still small, and Tempie took up with a first-generation immigrant from Portugal, Joseph Da Silva. In search of a better life, the family moved from Newport News, Virginia to Yonkers, New York. Ella, shy but ambitious, received excellent grades in school, and impressed playmates with her ability to dance and sing. Her attendance at the Bethany African Methodist Episcopal Church would have exposed her to formal music making – simple harmony, voice projection, rhythmic phrasing – while radio performances and recordings of Bing Crosby, the Boswell Sisters and Louis Armstrong fed her gift for imitation.
When Ella was 15 Tempie died of a heart attack; Ella’s biographer suspects that her stepfather, who then had charge of her, may have abused her (Nicholson 14). In any event her mother’s sister Virginia stepped in abruptly to remove her to her own home in Harlem. This was a turbulent time for Ella; she skipped school and was involved in running numbers (an illegal gambling racket) and acting as a lookout for a bordello. As a result she was sent to a reform school for girls, in which the black girls were singled out for routine beatings by the male staff. Ella escaped and lived as a fugitive on the streets, surviving by dancing for tips.
In Depression-era Harlem talent contests were popular, and Ella tried her luck at the Apollo Theater, the first theater to offer live entertainment for black audiences. Discouraged by the polished performance of other dancers, Ella decided at the last minute to sing. In spite of her initial nervousness, her performance brought the house down and earned her first prize. Her unkempt, unwashed appearance kept her from being hired for club jobs, however. Finally, in March 1935, she was offered a chance to sing for drummer and bandleader Chick Webb; despite his initial reservations, Ella’s voice and talent, her accurate ear and stunning ability to memorize, won her a place in his band.
Success in the era of Swing
Performing frequently on the radio as well as in clubs, Ella was featured by Webb more than was customary for singers at the time, who usually were subordinated to the instrumentalists; she soon earned the respect of public and bandmembers alike, ranking number one female vocalist in Downbeat and Melody-Maker readers’ polls, ahead of Billie Holiday. In 1937 Ella and the band took part in competitions (“battles of the band”) at the legendary Savoy Ballroom; in a contest against the Count Basie band and Billie Holiday, Ella beat her rival. (Nicholson 51). Her determined spirit paid off when “A Tisket, A Tasket,” a song she had co-written and insisted on performing, shot to first place on the music charts two weeks after it was released in 1938. Within three short years, at 21 years of age, Ella Fitzgerald had become the most popular female vocalist in America, known as the “First Lady of Swing.”
In 1939 Chick Webb died, and the band continued under the name “Ella Fitzgerald and her Famous Orchestra,” although it was actually managed until 1942 by saxophonist Teddy McRae. Following the pattern set by Webb, the band remained a commercial success by playing and recording popular, danceable tunes that appealed to both black and white audiences. Artistically, however, it was a time of stagnation. The band dissolved in 1942 and Ella began to solo with different artists, among them Bill Doggett and the Ink Spots.
Pushing the boundaries of jazz singing: bebop and scat
In the mid 1940s Ella began recording under Milt Gabler for Decca; her 1945 recording of “Flying Home” showed Ella Fitzgerald pushing in a new direction, extending the boundaries of jazz singing toward bebop, using scat singing for its musical potential:
“Flying Home” would become one of the most influential vocal jazz records of the decade, … in which she indulged extensively in the phonetic improvisation known as scat. Where other singers, most notably Louis Armstrong, had tried similar improvisation, no one before Miss Fitzgerald employed the technique with such dazzling inventiveness. (Holden)
In 1946 she recorded with Louis Armstrong. With her recording career on the rise again, Ella was becoming “a specialist in the jazz-influenced vocal” (Nicholson 86); especially stunning were her riff choruses of scat singing in “Lady Be Good.” In 1946 she toured with Dizzy Gillespie’s band playing the “New Jazz,” and appeared with him in a landmark concert in Carnegie Hall that evoked the pronouncement: “a new era of jazz began in 1947, … modern jazz has come to stay.” (Metronome magazine, quoted in Nicholson 102). Alone of the earlier swing era musicians, Ella had succeeded in fully making the transition to this more complex, rapid musical style (Nicholson 97).
In the years between 1943 and 1955 Ella sold over 22 million records for Decca, mostly under the direction of Milt Gabler; while many of these songs are now disregarded as of merely popular quality, they assured her a wide popular following. Throughout her career Ella maintained such a relentless touring and performing schedule that there was often little time to rehearse in the recording studio. But her uncanny ability to learn and memorize music and improvise harmonies usually compensated and memorable recordings were often the result.
Jazz At The Philharmonic; The American Songbook recordings
She began touring with jazz promoter Norman Granz and his large-scale “Jazz At The Philharmonic” (JATP) performances in 1949. In the 1950s JATP performed all over the US and Europe, and even enjoyed a celebrated concert in Japan. Ella’s jamming with instrumentalists was a regular and favorite part of the JATP concerts. Granz, who believed Ella was the greatest singer in jazz, became her manager in 1953. In 1954 Ella appeared at the first Newport Jazz Festival with pianist John Lewis; typically full of nervous anxiety before her performance, she was a smash hit: “’Nervous or not, Ella Fitzgerald had the crowd in a frenzy. At the end of her performance, the roar was deafening.’” (Photographer Burt Goldblatt, quoted in Nicholson 148).
In 1955 Granz founded Verve Records to feature Ella. Starting with the “Cole Porter Songbook,” he moved her career in yet another direction with eight sets of recordings made between 1956 and 1964 that presented the music of some of America’s most enduring composers and lyricists, among them Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer and Rodgers and Hart. “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook,” with arranger and conductor Nelson Riddle (1959), is considered the standout of the series. The “Songbook” albums brought a new level of serious attention to American popular song and assured Ella’s fame beyond the world of jazz, in the public at large.
The ultimate performer, even in later years
Singing live, before an audience, Ella conveyed the joyful energy and drive that drove her fans wild. Some of her best jazz recordings were made at live concerts, for example “Mack the Knife: Ella in Berlin” (1960), where she forgets the lyrics and improvises before a crowd of 12,000.
She continued to tour and perform 40 to 45 weeks a year, even as her health began to fail in the 1980’s; the demanding schedule rewarded her with the audience interaction and applause she craved, which in turn energized her. Ella had expressed a similar sentiment in 1954 at a gala celebration of her 19 years in show business:
“I guess what everyone wants more than anything else is to be loved. And to know that you love me for my singing is too much for me. Forgive me if I don’t have all the words.” (Nicholson 146)
Over her long career Ella Fitzgerald received many tributes and awards, including 13 Grammy Awards and a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement, the National Medal of the Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was generous in her charitable activities, especially on behalf of orphans and victims of child abuse.
Yet for all her popularity and charm in performance, she was shy, insecure and somehwat isolated in life. Although she married twice (bass player Ray Brown was her husband from 1947-53), had various affairs and an adopted son, she experienced few enduring close relationships in her life, and was, moreover, shielded from friends and fans alike by her managers and press agents. Suffering from diabetes, she experienced circulatory and eye problems; eventually her legs had to be amputated below the knees. A few days after her death on June 15, 1996, New York Times columnist Frank Rich summed up her significance:
It's not just that her singing is beautiful. It is also liberating, transporting us into a realm of pleasure beyond all barriers, whether of race and age, of jazz and pop, of high art and low, or even, when she floats into scat, of language. That timelessness will never fade.
Author: Joey Horsley
No other artist in jazz has enjoyed such unanimous approbation over such a long period from both public and critics … (Nicholson 2).
I guess what everyone wants more than anything else is to be loved. And to know that you love me for my singing is too much for me. Forgive me if I don’t have all the words. Maybe I can sing it and you’ll understand. (Ella Fitzgerald, 1954, zitiert nach Nicholson 146)
Literature & Sources
Gourse, Leslie. (2000) The Ella Fitzgerald Companion: Seven Decades of Commentary. Schirmer Trade Books.
Holden, Stephen. June 16, 1996. “Ella Fitzgerald, the Voice of Jazz, Dies at 79.” The New York Times. Retrieved 23 May, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/1996/06/16/nyregion/ella-fitzgerald-the-voice-of-jazz-dies-at-79.html?pagewanted=all
Nicholson, Stuart. 2004. Ella Fitzgerald: The Complete Biography. New York and London: Routledge.
Rich, Frank. June 19, 1996. “Journal; How High the Moon. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/1996/06/19/opinion/journal-how-high-the-moon.html
Wikipedia. “Ella Fitzgerald.” Retrieved 19 May 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ella_Fitzgerald
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