Ella Fitzgerald is rightly one of the iconic female American Jazz vocalists. She combined lightness, creativity with interpretation, and hornlike improvisational acumen that thrilled audiences for decades. Her ability to appeal to mainstream audiences and Jazz audience was a plus and she achieved crossover success numerous times in her career.
Born on April 25th, 1917 in Newport News, Virginia, Fitzgerald’s parents split when she was young and she and her mother Tempie, relocated to Yonkers, New York. They moved in with Tempie’s boyfriend, and the family all contributed economically through various jobs. The young Fitzgerald had a fairly typical upbringing, until her mother passed away in 1932. Fitzgerald struggled in school, and later left, and she was beaten while living in a reform school. Ella left the reform school and in 1934 at the Apollo Theater, at the age of fifteen, and won the amateur hour competition where she had planned to dance, but after seeing superior competition, she decided to sing “Judy” by Hoagy Carmichael.
Ella’s performance that evening was observed by alto saxophonist and arranger Benny Carter, and through his connections, it greatly boosted her career. In 1935 after winning numerous talent competitions, she performed with the Tiny Bradshaw band at the Harlem Opera House where she met drummer and bandleader Chick Webb. Although Webb had hired vocalist Charlie Linton, he agreed to see how Ella would fit with the band at a Yale University concert. Fitzgerald was hired, and recorded her first side for Decca, “Love and Kisses” in 1936. Two years later, she had a smash hit with “A Tisket, A Tasket”. She fronted the Webb group after his passing for several years, and after marrying bassist Ray Brown in 1946 joined Norman Granz’ Jazz at the Philharmonic.
The Jazz at the Philharmonic, (or JATP) tours as they were known allowed the musicians to be conduits for social change in addition to thrilling audiences. Norman Granz was adamant that his racially mixed groups received equal treatment and perform to mixed crowds. At a stop in Dallas, Texas, police officers perturbed by Granz’ modus operandi arrested Fitzgerald along with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet, who were playing dice. The incident was a valuable lesson for those involved who experienced debilitating segregation as they toured across the country. The JATP association was Granz’ first venture with Fitzgerald, a lifelong collaborator and friend. Beginning in 1956, Ella signed with Granz’ Verve label and recorded a series of albums saluting the Great American Songbook. These albums gained Ella wide popular appeal with mainstream audiences, as well as enhancing her status in the Jazz community. Her famous Ella in Berlin album from 1960 contained her rendition of “How High the Moon”, notable for a heavily swinging scat improvisation partially begun for the fact she forgot the words! She would record Verve albums with luminaries such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, the latter collected in an 8 disc box set, and the former in a 3 disc box set.
Fitzgerald continued to tour although her health began to fail. Beginning in 1972, through the end of her professional career in 1989, she rejoined forces with Granz on his new Pablo label. The Pablo label served to record many acoustic Jazz masters from previous eras, and kept acoustic Jazz afloat when Jazz-Rock and Jazz-Funk were the dominant styles. Fitzgerald recorded prolifically for Pablo, with late career highlights including duet albums with pianist Oscar Peterson and guitarist Joe Pass, an appearance with her trio at the 1977 Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland (where Granz taped a whopping 15 albums for release by Pablo’s roster) and an album with Count Basie’s Orchestra, again at Montreux, this time at the 1979 festival.
Ella remained active though her voice was becoming weathered, and through further health complications. By the early 90’s she had both legs amputated due to diabetes, ending her performing career. She passed away in Beverly Hills, California on June 15th, 1996. Fitzgerald will always be remembered for her hard swing, way with a lyric and the many stellar performances she issued throughout her career.