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The Life of Ella Fitzgerald and Her Impact on Jazz Music

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Ella Fitzgerald, also known as the First Lady of Song, Queen of Jazz, and Lady Ella , was without any doubt one of the greatest, if not the greatest, jazz vocalists of the 20th Century. With a vocal range spanning three octaves, she was noted for her purity of tone and her almost faultless phrasing and intonation. She could sing sultry ballads, sweet jazz, and imitate every instrument in an orchestra. During a recording career which lasted almost 60 years, she was the winner of thirteen Grammy Awards, sold over 40 million albums, and was awarded the National Medal of Art by President Ronald Reagan. Her voice gave hope throughout the Harlem Renaissance and influenced many other American singers.

The Queen of Jazz was born as Ella Jane Fitzgerald in Newport News, Virginia, on April, 25, 1917 to her father, William, and mother, Temperance, more commonly known as “Tempie”. Her parents eventually parted ways not too long after her birth. Because of this Tempie made the decision to move her and Ella to Yonkers, N.Y, where they would eventually stay with Tempie’s longtime boyfriend Joseph Da Silva, also known as Joe. A couple of years later, Ella’s half-sister, Frances, was born in 1923. Ella started to accept Joseph as her father around this time, because he was the man who helped raise her. Because of financial hardships, Joseph and Tempie worked two jobs. Ella took on various small jobs from time to time in an effort to try to help her parents out. One job was even for local gamblers as a runner taking their bets and dropping money off. Their apartment was in a mixed neighborhood, and Ella was often involved in baseball games in the area. She loved dancing and singing with her friends and sometimes at the Apollo Theater they would take the train to Harlem to watch various acts.

In 1932, Tempie died after being seriously injured in a car accident.. Ella took in the loss of her mother very hard. Tempie’s sister Virginia took Ella home after staying with Joe for a little longer. Joe then suffered a heart attack shortly after her leave and passed away. Her little sister Frances then reunited with her. After the death of her parents, Ella became extremely sad and entered a difficult period of her life. Her grades dropped drastically, and she frequently skipped school. After getting into trouble with the police, she was taken into custody and sent to a reform school. There she would suffer beatings at the hands of her caretakers. Eventually Ella escaped from the reformatory found herself broke and alone during the Great Depression, and strove to endure. Never one to complain, Ella later reflected on her most difficult years with an appreciation for how they helped her to mature. She used the memories from these times to help gather emotions for performances, and felt she was more grateful for her success because she knew what it was like to struggle in life.

She made her debut at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York, at the age of 17 in 1934, where she won the opportunity to participate in one of the earliest of its famous’ Amateur Nights. Originally, she was planning to go on stage and dance, but she was intimidated by the local dance duo’ Edwards Sisters, ‘ she chose to sing in the style of her idol, Connie Boswell. She sang’ Judy’ and’ The Object of My Affections’ from Hoagy Carmichael and another Boswell Sisters song that night. Ella quieted the audience quickly, and they demanded an encore at the end of the song. Off stage, and away from people she knew well, Ella was shy and reserved. She was self-conscious of her looks and even doubted the strength of her abilities for a while. However, on stage, Ella was surprised to find that she had no fear. She felt at home in the spotlight. ‘Once up there, I felt the acceptance and love from my audience,’ Ella said. ‘I knew I wanted to sing before people the rest of my life’.

She won a chance to perform for a week with the Tiny Bradshaw band at the Harlem Opera House in January 1935. Ella met Chick Webb, guitarist and bandleader, for the first time. Webb had already hired male singer Charlie Linton to perform with the group, so he offered Ella the opportunity to test with his band when they got a booking to play for dance at Yale University. Ella was a major success, and then Webb hired her to travel with the band for $12.50 a week. In 1935, she started to sing regularly with Webb’s Orchestra at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom. Fitzgerald recorded several hit songs with them, including’ You’ll Have to Swing It, Mr. Paganini’ and’ Love and Kisses’ (their first recording), but it was her 1938 nursery rhyme version,’ A-Tisket, A-Tasket’, that earned her mainstream acclaim. In fact, her first recording, Love and Kisses’ (released under the Decca label) brought only moderate success. On June 16, 1939, with Ella as bandleader, Chick Webb died and his band was renamed Ella Fitzgerald and her Famous Orchestra. Ella began working regularly for the jazz impresario Norman Granz and performed often at the Philharmonic concerts. Fitzgerald’s relationship with Granz was further strengthened when he became her manager, even though, it would be nearly a decade before he was able to record her on one of his many record labels.

With the end of the Swing era and the decrease of the great touring big bands, a major change in jazz music occurred in this period. The rise of be-bop brought a major change in the vocal style of Fitzgerald, influenced by her work with the big band of Dizzy Gillespie. Fitzgerald began to include scat singing as a major part of her performance repertoire at this time, as well as her 1947 recordings of’ Oh, Lady be Good!The success of’ How Big the Moon’ and’ Flying Back’ increased her reputation as one of the leading vocalists in jazz. Perhaps responding to criticism, and under pressure from Granz who felt that Fitzgerald was sometimes given unsuitable material to record during this period, her last years on the Decca label saw Fitzgerald’s recording a series of duets with pianist Ellis Larkins, released in 1950 as Ella Sings Gershwin.

Fitzgerald left the Decca label in 1955. She continued to perform at Granz’s JATP concerts, and Granz, now her manager, founded the jazz record company around her, Verve. In the mid-1950s, Ella became the first African-American to perform at the Mocambo, after Marilyn Monroe had petitioned the owner for the booking. The booking was instrumental in Fitzgerald’s career. In 2008, the incident became a play by Bonnie Greer. The eight’ Songbooks’ recorded by Fitzgerald at irregular intervals between 1956 and 1964 for Verve reflected her most critically acclaimed and commercially successful work, and probably her most important contribution to American culture and the Harlem Renaissance. The composers and lyricists for each album represent the greatest part of the cultural canon known as the Great American Songbook.

In September of 1986, Ella had a quintuple coronary bypass surgery. A valve in her heart was also replaced and she was diagnosed with diabetes, which was supposedly the culprit of her failing eyesight. There were rumors that she would never be able to sing again, but Ella proved them wrong. Despite the disapproval by her family and friends, Ella returned to the stage. By the 1990s, Ella had recorded over 200 albums. In 1991, she gave her final concert at New York’s renowned Carnegie Hall. It was the 26th time she had performed there. But her health began to decline and after developing a serious circulatory problem she had to have both her legs amputated below the knees. On June 15, 1996, Ella Fitzgerald died in her Beverly Hills home. Hours later, signs of remembrance began to appear all over the world. A wreath of white flowers stood next to her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and a marquee outside the Hollywood Bowl theater read, ‘Ella, we will miss you’. After a private memorial service, traffic on the freeway was stopped to let her funeral procession pass through. She was laid to rest in the ‘Sanctuary of the Bells’ section of the Sunset Mission Mausoleum at Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California. 

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