Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Fitzgerald, Ella

To paraphrase the poet Robert Graves, Ella Fitzgerald was really very good, despite all the people who said she was very good. When she was displaced by Roberta Flack as Best Female Vocalist by five votes in the 1971 Down Beat Reader’s Poll, it ended an almost unbroken run of success that had begun in 1937. Equally, she enjoyed similar unanimity from critics: from the first Down Beat Critic’s Poll in 1953 until the mid-1970s, she was regularly voted Number One Female Vocalist. No other artist in jazz has enjoyed such unanimous approbation over such a long period from both public and critics alike, indeed, many commentators have suggested that Ella Fitzgerald was probably the most popular performer in the history of jazz.

     Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Brown at Birdland, photo by Marcel Fleiss

The reason for this was simple. Ella Fitzgerald disappeared into a song so completely audiences saw and heard just the purity of her voice. Its perpetually youthful timbre – half girl, half woman – gave it a universal, timeless appeal. It evoked straightforward and uncomplicated emotions, the emotions of adolescence rather than the complex ‘grown-up’ emotions of say, the discovery of infidelity. The values she communicated were simple, even optimistic; her yearning became the adolescent’s yearning, her dreams the adolescent’s dreams. This ingénue quality of her singing was perhaps its most endearing characteristic, as singer Mel Tormé, a personal friend for over fifty years, observed in 1991, “She’s never lost that girl-woman quality. She still sounds – even at her age and I guess she’s in her early seventies now – she still sounds like a little girl when she sings, she’s still got that ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket’ sound of innocence."

Somewhat enigmatically, Ella Fitzgerald always gave her date of birth as April 25, 1918 but as Stuart Nicholson’s biography of Fitzgerald revealed, the state registrar for Virginia confirmed Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born on Wednesday April 25, 1917 in Newport News City, Warwick County to William Fitzgerald and Tempie Williams Fitzgerald. Although the couple were not married, William acknowledged paternity while Tempie, an abbreviation of Temperance, was the name Ella’s mother always used. Yet Ella was well aware the correct year of her birth was 1917 – her school records show this date as did her Social Security registration!

William and Tempie appear with Ella in Newport News City in the 1920 Census, but within a year Tempie was with a new man and with Ella in tow, moved to Yonkers in Westchester County, New York. Ella began her schooling in September 1923, and contemporaries recall a burning ambition to make the big time, either as a dancer or singer or both, as well as an ability to mimic popular singers of the day including Louis Armstrong’s 1929 version of "Ain’t Misbehavin’" and Connee Boswell’s version of "Everybody Loves My Baby" with the Boswell sisters.

In 1932, Ella’s mother died unexpectedly and she was taken into care by Tempie’s sister Virginia. The young teenager did not see eye to eye with her guardian and ran away. She was living rough on the streets before the authorities caught-up with her and sent her to the New York State Training School at Hudson. Here, an authoritarian regime prevailed and again Ella ran away, this time for good, in 1934. Living on streets once again and supporting herself by dancing for tips at ‘Black Broadway’ on Seventh Avenue between 130th and 140th, she made her stage debut at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre during their famous Amateur Hour on November 21, 1934, an event which she won.

In January 1935 she won the Amateur Hour in Harlem’s Opera House and began working with bandleader Vernon Andrade at the Renaissance Ballroom where she came to attention of Charles Linton, then vocalist in bandleader/drummer Chick Webb’s orchestra. On his recommendation she was given a trial, and it quickly became obvious she was a quick study. In May 1935 she was reviewed singing with Webb’s band by George T. Simon in the pages of Metronome who prophetically wrote, "Miss Fitzgerald should go places."

Her remarkable rags-to-riches story continued when she made her recording debut with Webb in June 1935, singing "Love and Kisses" coupled with "I’ll Chase the Blues Away." She quickly became a favorite with the dance crowds, especially at Webb’s regular haunt at the Savoy ballroom in Harlem, where, unlike other female vocalists of the day, who sat demurely on the bandstand until their turn came to sing, her early love of dance came into play as she kick-stepped and jived in front of the band during rhythm numbers.

Her popularity was such that Webb began to build the band around her, with, according to Webb’s saxophonist and arranger Teddy McRae, ‘most of the broadcast time’ going to Ella during the band’s eight radio slots per week. In 1938 she wrote "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," which was arranged for the Webb band by Van Alexander, and it immediately charted in June 1938, going on to be a million seller by 1950. The hit transformed the Webb band into a national attraction. However, demand for the band meant incessant touring causing Webb’s already frail health to give out on June 16, 1939.

Within two weeks the band was revived with Ella as notional leader. On December 26, 1941 Ella married Louis Kornegay in St. Louis, a marriage that was subsequently annulled, a harbinger of a series of unsuccessful relationships with men. In 1942 she appeared in the Abbot and Costello movie Ride ‘Em Cowboy but later in the year the big band broke up and she went out as a single managed by Moe Gale. In 1944 she recorded "Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall" with the Ink Spots which went on to become a million seller leading to several best selling collaborations, not only with the Ink Spots – "I’m Beginning to See the Light," "It’s Only a Paper Moon" – but also with Louis Armstrong and Louis Jordan.

In 1945 she recorded a tour-de-force of scat singing, "Flying Home" (which was not released until 1947) marking her fascination with bebop. Touring with Dizzy Gillespie’s Orchestra in 1946 and 1947, she also appeared with Gillespie at Carnegie Hall on September 29, 1947 on what was billed a concert of ‘the New Jazz’ that also included an ‘exclusive’ appearance of Charlie Parker. Ella became the only Swing Era musician who successfully mastered the transition to bebop, Down Beat noting in 1947 she was ‘as great a master of bop as she was of swing.’ Her association with Gillespie’s big band led to a romance with the band’s bassist Ray Brown, whom she married on December 13, 1947. A hugely successful tour with Illinois Jacquet’s combo in 1948 prompted Norman Granz to invite Ella to join his Jazz at the Philharmonic concert show.

Her first appearance with the troupe (which included some of the finest jazz musicians of the day, including from time to time Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins), was at Carnegie Hall on February 11, 1949. It marked the beginning of a long association with the show in which Ella rose to become the ipso facto star, with her own set and a featured appearance during the jam session finale, trading choruses with the greatest instrumentalists in jazz.

In 1950, her recording Ella Sings Gershwin, a duet with pianist Ellis Larkins, marked a serious and conscientious application of her great gift which at the behest of Decca records had often been used in service of novelty numbers. On August 28, 1953 she divorced Ray Brown and later in the year toured Japan with JATP, opening to a ticker-tape welcome in open cars through the streets of Tokyo. During the tour, Norman Granz suggested he become her personal manager. In June 1954, she celebrated nineteen years in show biz at New York’s Basin Street, where Decca records presented her with a plaque commemorating the sale of an incredible 22 million records.

In 1955 she left Decca to sign with Norman Granz’s Verve Records, formed especially to feature her. The same year she had a cameo role as nightclub singer Maggie Jackson in the motion picture Pete Kelly’s Blues and on October 7, was arrested during a JATP tour (along with Dizzy Gillespie, Illinois Jacquet and Granz himself) in an attempted drugs bust by Houston police, who tried and failed to plant drugs to incriminate the JATP performers. In February 1956 she began recording The Cole Porter Songbook which went on to become one of the best selling albums of all time, establishing the financial viability of Verve Records.

It would mark the beginning of the highly successful Songbook series, culminating in the George Gershwin Songbook, a five album set arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle which many believe was her finest achievement on record. In 1957 she became the first black artist to headline at New York’s famed Copacabana nightspot. In 1960, Granz sold Verve to MGM, but continued to manage the careers of Ella and Oscar Peterson. That year she also recorded the Grammy winning "Mack the Knife" and the lesser known "Let No Man Write My Epitaph" which capture her voice in peak form.

During the 1960s, Granz built Ella into an international attraction, able to sell out the most prestigious concert houses around the world, from Carnegie Hall in New York to the Albert Hall in London, from La Scala in Milan to the Sydney Opera House. In the later part of the decade, Granz frequently presented Ella with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, a collaboration described by Derek Jewell in the London Times as a ‘mature masterpiece’ while Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau famously rushed to the airport immediately after a recital in Washington D.C. to catch a flight to New York to see them perform, exclaiming, "Ella and Duke together! One doesn’t know when there might be a chance to hear that again."

In 1972, Ella suffered a cataract problem, which marked the beginning of health problems which would cast a shadow over her final years. In 1973, Granz formed Pablo Records, and Ella began her association with the label with an album of duets with guitarist Joe Pass and the four albums they recorded together are considered by many to be among the finest of her latter-day work – Take Love Easy (1973), Fitzgerald and Pass...Again (1976), Speak Love (1983) and Easy Living (1986). In 1981 she participated in the ‘Is it live or is it Memorex’ advertising campaign, introducing her to a new generation of younger fans.

By now health problems began to mount – in 1986 she had open heart surgery while in 1987 diabetes led to the amputation of a toe, but her determination to continue performing and her optimistic disposition remained undiminished. In 1989 she recorded All That Jazz for Pablo, which won a Grammy in the 1991 award ceremony. However, her career was slowly moving towards the inevitable end game. Her final recording session took place in 1989 when she sang on three numbers on the Quincy Jones album Back to the Block while her final concert appearance was at Michigan Music Hall in 1992.

In 1993, both her legs were amputated through complications with diabetes and on June 15, 1996 her remarkable odyssey, that had begun in dire poverty and ended in Beverly Hills luxury, finally came to an end. By then she was one of the few performing artists in jazz, classical or pop known throughout the English speaking world and far beyond by just one word, Ella.

Contributor: Stuart Nicholson