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Ella Fitzgerald – The Leading Lady of Jazz

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Ella Fitzgerald, an icon in the music industry, brought the styles of scatting and bebop to new heights in Jazz music with her unique talents. As a young African-American girl from Virginia growing up in a struggling home, she held a spirited passion for Jazz that would guide her to become as successful as the idols she praised. Fitzgerald’s transcendent vocal career was influenced by her troubled childhood and inspired by her admiration of leading jazz singers in the world of music.

Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Virginia on April 25, 1917 to her mother Temperance and her father William, who abandon them soon afterwards. She and her mother then moved to Yonkers, New York to live with her significant other, Joseph Da Silva and they shortly gave birth to Fitzgerald’s half sister Frances. Although they weren’t living a destitute life, they still struggled financially.To support the family her stepfather had to work two jobs and her mother worked long hours at a laundromat. Fitzgerald worked as a runner (someone who picks up bets) for gamblers in her community as a way to put in her contribution for her family’s living. Her and her family would go to Bethany African Methodist Episcopal Church where they became familiar to formal music arrangements. Fitzgerald would listen to radio performances and recording of “Bing Crosby, the Boswell Sisters , Louis Armstrong as they fed her gift for imitation” which lead her further down the road of Jazz . Through music she made many friends in her community, some who even shared the passion of dancing with her, Her first dream was to be a dancer growing up in New York, “she was inspired by “Snake Hips” Tucker, studying his serpent moves and practicing them constantly with friends”. They’d take train rides to the Apollo Theater in Harlem to see a numerous of acts perform on stage and yearn to get a chance to perform. In later years, Fitzgerald’s mother passed away from severe injuries by a car accident, leading her to move in with her aunt. While struggling with the loss of her mother, Fitzgerald hit the bottom where her grades were failing and hope was gone. This lead her to act out and get into trouble with the law and was eventually arrested. During that era, when a child that has become disrupt they are sent to a reform school, which is where Fitzgerald ended up. The faculty was greatly crowded and “overwhelmed as the Depression converged with the great migration of poor blacks from the rural south.” In her time there she suffered from frequent beatings at the hands of those in charge, she woke with “bruises as black as night”. In 1932, at the age 15 she eventually escaped the reformatory but fell into the world during the time of the Great Depression. Fitzgerald faced the streets and “tried to make it alone while still harboring her dream to perform”. That part of her childhood gave her the strength and passion that allowed her to be a mesmerizing idol. And all her memories worked as a vital benefit to her presence on stage. Through her younger years she experienced abuse, starvation, and homelessness but that only gave her further courage to “find her dream and grasp for it”.

A year later, she finally had her chance to perform at the Harlem Apollo Theater, one of the first theaters to offer entertainment to black audience which was a vital in the Harlem Renaissance. After winning a contest, she went up to the stage with her original idea to dance but she decided last minute to sing and she then captured the audience with her pure voice. She often felt self-conscious about her appearance that would cause doubt in her performance but on stage “Ella was surprised to find that she contained no fear at all, as if she was meant to be there”(Stone 49). During the era of big swing bands, there was a shift in music that focused on bebop. From there on, people were fascinated with her and her unique voice, so much that in March 1935 she was offered a chance to sing to drummer/ band leader Chick Webb. However, at first to the band said she looked too ragged and unattractive and they weren’t going to take her. But they took a chance on her and three years later Fitzgerald requited him with a billboard chart song “A Tisket, A-Tasket”, her own version of a nursery rhyme. Fitzgerald embodied this new style, she used “her voice to take on the role of another horn in the band”. Impressed by her talent, arranger Benny Carter starting to introduce Fitzgerald too many producers that could assist in her rise to stardom.

As Fitzgerald entered the Jazz industry she also entered the Harlem Renaissance, known as the ‘New Negro Movement’. It centered around Harlem, New York after “there was an artistic and social wave that introduced new and great minds of soul”. Well known artists such as Josephine Baker, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie contribute their talents to the Harlem Renaissance and relayed that their art was an “expression of our individual dark-skinned selves”. Singers Cole Porter and Duke Ellington adored Fitzgerald and “admired her for her talent to sing ballads and quick tunes without any practiceЭ. With the recognition she earned from Harlem’s artists, it allowed her to grow and become as famous, or even more, as they were. Celebrities like Tiny Bradshaw, were amazed by her and gave her the chance to perform on her show. Fitzgerald took every chance she could and that was no different, everyone now knew who she was and her career took off flying. As Fitzgerald came into her own in she experimented in scat singing and “her improvisation and vocalization thrilled fans”. Soon after Chick Webb passed in 1939, the group was then renamed Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Band. And while on tour she met bassist Ray Brown and they eventually married and adopted their son Ray Jr. At the time Brown produced a tour called “Jazz at the Philharmonic”, where famous Jazz singers such as Louis Armstrong and Cole Porter performed. After the tour “singers and producers started asking to producer songs and albums with her” and Fitzgerald stayed humble through it all. But this new found fame came with struggles with discrimination as she had extremely strong feelings about civil rights. Fitzgerald believed in equality of all and despised any type of discrimination. A numerous amount of celebrities supported her, such as Marilyn Monroe. Who helped Fitzgerald by praising her to the press by saying “Ella is ahead of her time” while urging them to go see her sing at the Mocambo, and she became the first ever African-American to perform there.

Fitzgerald also worked with a type of style known as Calypso, where the lyrics were half sung and spoken. In the swing dance era, most people enjoy music with beats and rhythms such as Peggy Lee and Billie Holiday but Fitzgerald wanted to bring more than just the same music. On sheets of music Calypso and Scat seem like nonsense but she could “pour innocence and melodic sounds that translated into such beauty”. On her tour with Norman Granz in 1935, she sang her most captivating songs ‘Oh, Lady Be Good’ and ‘How High the Moon’. In those songs she would untilize her scatting skills and harmonic melody to put forth emeotion. Fitzgerald was told one day after a concert that a womфn felt deeply connected to her music she wept and she greatly appreciated her. For every song she sang she wanted to make people feel, so Fitzgerald would remember her family, home, and hardships to “gather emotions to give her lyrics and melody meaning”.

Her determination benefited her as she stood out amongst other bebop singers and bands, and her full on orchestra gave further power to her music. Her 1954 single ‘Flying Home’ pushed the boundaries of Jazz and her arrangement went on to become “one of the most influential jazz records of the decade”. Some criticism she faced was the fact that she had a crossover between pop and jazz, they didn’t recognize her for her strength. People though she “lacked the emotion that singers like Billie Holiday projected”. Nevertheless, Fitzgerald continued to be a supreme melodist and stayed humbled throughout her cess. Even though scatting and bebop wasn’t brought up by Fitzgerald, her heavenly voice contained power and emotion that many took pleasure in.

As she continues to go a numerous amount of tours all over the world she grew ill overtime causing damage to her eyesight. Yet that didn’t stop her and she went on to join Frank Sinatra and Count Basie in New York, where she performed at the Uris theater “as she once dreamed she would”. Fitzgerald shared a soft place in her heart for child welfare. She would give large donations to organizations that cared for those who live in foster cares and in shelters. Everytime she sang she would bare her all and “felt grateful for her success because she knew what it was like to not have anything but yourself”. She shared the same experiences with those children at a point in her life and understood the feelings of loneliness. Fitzgerald was motivated to keeping push forwarding but, in 1986 she had quintuple coronary bypass surgery. She was diagnosed with diabetes and yet again she went to return to the stage, her home. By 1990, Fitzgerald had over 200 albums, “and performed in Carnegie Hall 26 times which is where she gave her last concert”. She was awarded the National Medal of Art by President Ronald Reagan and was also presented Commander of Arts and Letter award, which is truly treasured. At the age of 76, Fitzgerald’s condition had become worst which lead to both of her legs to be amputated under the knee. She finally decided to live out the rest of her life peacefully at home with her “true lights of her life” her son and granddaughter Alice. On June 15, 1996, Fitzgerald passed away in her home, and a bright star took to the skies that night.

While working with a various amount of well known singers over the years she finished her iconic Songbook series which contained intervals between 1956 and 1964 and was finally released in 1994. This serves as her most successful piece and was her most influential work in American Culture. Through poverty and isolation, Fitzgerald used music as beam that guided her to success. Her achievements and major works were due to her passion and drive to be someone and to able to help those in need. Fitzgerald genuinely influenced the generation of Jazz, she was truly the leading lady of jazz.

Works cited

  • Bernstein, Nina. “Ward of the State; The Gap in Ella Fitzgerald’s Life.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 23 June 1996,
  • Conover, Willis. “Interview with Ella Fitzgerald, for Voices of VISTA #127.” Digital Library, Volunteers in Service to America, 31 Mar. 2016,
  • Heckman, Don. “Early Evidence of Fitzgerald’s Prowess.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 14 May 2000,
  • Mark, Geoffrey. Ella: a Biography of the Legendary Ella Fitzgerald. Ultimate Symbol, 2018.
  • Nicholson, Stuart. Ella Fitzgerald: a Biography of the First Lady of Jazz. Routledge, 2014.
  • Stone, Tanya Lee. Ella Fitzgerald: a Twentieth-Century Life. Viking, 2008. 

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