Ella Fitzgerald (1918-1996) was one of the most exciting jazz singers of her time and, because of the naturalness of her style, had a popular appeal that extended far beyond the borders of jazz.
Ella Fitzgerald was born on April 25, 1918, in Newport News, Virginia, but spent her formative years in Yonkers, New York, and received her musical education in its public schools. When only 16, she received her first big break at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, when she won an amateur night contest and impressed saxophonistbandleader Benny Carter. He recommended her to drummer-bandleader Chick Webb, who hired her in 1935. She soon became a recording star with the band, and her own composition "A-tisket, A-tasket"(1938) was such a smash hit that the song became her trademark for many years thereafter. When Webb died in 1939, Fitzgerald assumed leadership of the band for the next year.
By 1940 Fitzgerald was recognized throughout the music world as a vocal marvel—a singer with clarity of tone, flexibility of range, fluency of rhythm, and, above all, a talent for improvisation that was equally effective on ballads and up-tempo tunes. Although for a long time her reputation with musicians and other singers outstripped that with the general public, she corrected the imbalance soon after joining Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) in 1946. She made annual tours with the group and was invariably the concert favorite. Three of her unfailing show-stoppers were "Oh, Lady Be Good," "Stomping at the Savoy," and "How High the Moon." Each would begin at a medium tempo and then turn into a rhythmic excursion as Fitzgerald moved up-tempo and "scatted"(that is, sang harmonic variations of the melody in nonsense syllables). The huge JATP crowds always responded tumultuously.
By the early 1950s Fitzgerald's domination of fans' and critics' polls was absolute. In fact, she won the Down Beat readers' poll every year from 1953 to 1970 and became known as "The First Lady of Song." In 1955 she terminated her 20-year recording affiliation with Decca in order to record for Norman Granz's Verve label and proceeded to produce a series of superlative "Songbook" albums, each devoted to the compositions of a great songwriter or song-writing team (Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer; George and Ira Gershwin; Cole Porter; Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart; Irving Berlin; Duke Ellington). The lush orchestrations induced Fitzgerald to display the classy pop-singer side of herself; even in the two-volume Ellington set her jazzier side deferred to the melodist in her.
Under Granz's personal management Fitzgerald also began to play choice hotel jobs and made her first featured film appearance, in "Pete Kelly's Blues"(1955). In 1957 she worked at the Copacabana in New York City and gave concerts at the Hollywood Bowl. In 1958, in the company of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, she gave a concert at Carnegie Hall as part of an extended European and United States tour with the band. In the early 1960s she continued to work the big hotel circuit—the Flamingo in Las Vegas, the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, and the Americana in New York City—and to tour Europe, Latin America, and Japan with the Oscar Peterson trio, which was three-fourths of Granz's JATP house rhythm section. In 1965 and 1966 she was reunited with Ellington for another tour and record date.
Fitzgerald was always blessed with superb accompanists, from the full orchestral support of Chick Webb and Duke Ellington to the smaller JATP ensembles. In 1968 she teamed up with yet another, the magnificent pianist Tommy Flanagan, who headed a trio that served her into the mid-1970s. In 1971 Fitzgerald had serious eye surgery, but within a year she was performing again. Her singing, however, began to show evidence of decline: the voice that was once an instrument of natural luster and effortless grace became a trifle thin and strained. Nevertheless, so great was her artistry that she continued to excite concert audiences and to record effectively. She appeared after the mid-1960s with over 50 symphonic orchestras in the United States.
A large, pleasant-looking woman with a surprisingly girlish speaking voice, Ella Fitzgerald had a propensity for forgetting lyrics. This endeared her to audiences, who delighted in her ability to work her way out of these selfpainted corners. Unlike some other great jazz singers (Billie Holiday, Anita O'Day), Fitzgerald had a private life devoid of drug-related notoriety. She was twice married: the first marriage, to Bernie Kornegay in 1941, was annulled two years later; the second, to bassist Ray Brown in 1948, ended in divorce in 1952 (they had one son).
Was Ella Fitzgerald essentially a jazz singer or a pop singer? Jazz purists say that she lacked the emotional depth of Billie Holiday, the imagination of Sarah Vaughan or Anita O'Day, and the blues-based power of Dinah Washington and that she was often facile, glossy, and predictable. The criticisms sprang partly from her "crossover" popularity and ignored her obvious strengths and contributions: Fitzgerald was not only one of the pioneers of scatsinging, but, beyond that, she was an unpretentious singer whose harmonic variations were always unforced and a supreme melodist who never let her ego get in the way of any song she sang.
Fitzgerald died on June 15, 1996 at the age of 78. She left a legacy that won't soon be forgotten. In her lifetime she was honored with no less than 12 Grammys, the Kennedy Center Award, as well as an honorary doctorate in music from Yale University. In 1992 she was honored by President George Bush with the National Medal of Freedom. Fitzgerald's impressive financial estate was left in a trust, including the $2.5 million in proceeds from the sale of her Beverly Hills home.
There is no biography of Ella Fitzgerald, but there are excellent chapters on her in Leonard Feather's From Satchmo to Miles (1972) and Henry Pleasants' The Great American Popular Singers (1974). Also see Jet (December 28, 1992).