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Reflections on Ella Fitzgerald

Happy Birthday, Ella!

This year we celebrate the 100th birthday of jazz vocalist,

Ella Fitzgerald

Jazz Vocal Luminary

Ella Fitzgerald, (April 25, 1917 – June 15, 1996), is one of the great luminaries of jazz, noted for her purity of tone, impeccable diction, phrasing and intonation, and a "horn-like" improvisational ability, particularly in her scat singing. She set the bar high for jazz vocalists, who've been trying to keep pace with her musicianship and artistry ever since.

A Life In Song

Although very shy when she set foot on the stage of the legendary Apollo Theatre, Ella said, "Once up there, I felt the acceptance and love from my audience. I knew I wanted to sing before people the rest of my life." And, that is what she proceeded to do for 59 years, for which we are eternally grateful.

Childhood Trauma

Although her early childhood was a happy one, when Ella was 15 years old, her mother died from serious injuries from a car accident . This left her in the care of her stepfather, but before the end of April 1933 she moved in with her aunt in Harlem, due to speculation that her stepfather might have abused her. Following these traumas, Ella began skipping school and letting her grades suffer. During this period she worked at times as a lookout at a bordello and with a Mafia-affiliated numbers runner. Ella never talked publicly about this time in her life. When the authorities caught up with her, she was placed in the Colored Orphan Asylum in Riverdale, in the Bronx, then was moved to the New York Training School for Girls in Hudson, New York, a state reformatory located about 120 miles north of New York City. Eventually she escaped and for a time she was homeless.

Overcoming Obstacles

Ella was tough! Make no mistake. She had a very childlike nature, but underneath that exterior was a fighter. She was a classic rags to riches story in a time when racism was the norm. She also overcame the sexist stereotype of female-singers as non-musicians., Although destined for greatness, we owe a debt of gratitude to bandleader, Chick Webb, who took Ella under his wing at a time in her life when she was basically homeless. As a result, Ella never took her success for granted. She maintained a grueling touring schedule until her health problems no longer permitted her to do so.

Collaborations with Legends of Jazz

She not only worked with, and learned from, the best in the business, but garnered their respect and admiration. Some of Ella's most famous collaborations were with trumpeter Louis Armstrong, the guitarist Joe Pass, and bandleaders Count Basie and Duke Ellington, as well as arrangers, Nelson Riddle and Quincy Jones. She worked with famous jazz musicians and soloists as sidemen over her long career. The trumpeters Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie, the guitarist Herb Ellis, and the pianists Tommy Flanagan, Oscar Peterson, Lou Levy, Paul Smith, Jimmy Rowles, and Ellis Larkins also worked with Ella.


When Ella wasn't on the road, which was rare, she was in the recording studio. Her discography is too numerous to mention here, but some of the highlights were her recordings of great American Songbook composers, including Cole Porter, George & Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, Rodgers and Hart, as well as Brazilian composer, Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Awards & Honors

Ella was the recipient of thirteen Grammy Awards, and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1967. In 1958 Fitzgerald was the first African American female to win at the inaugural show.

Other major awards and honors she received during her career were the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Medal of Honor Award, National Medal of Art, first Society of Singers Lifetime Achievement Award, named "Ella" in her honor, Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the George and Ira Gershwin Award for Lifetime Musical Achievement, UCLA Spring Sing, and the UCLA Medal (1987). Across town at the University of Southern California, she received the USC "Magnum Opus" Award which hangs in the office of the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation. In 1990, she received an honorary doctorate of Music from Harvard University.

A Life Devoted to Music

Ella was all about music, and in her biography, Ella Fitzgerald, by Stuart Nicholson, it seems clear that she was singly focused on her career in music at the expense of having any close personal relationships. She worked harder than any of her male counterparts, and often exceeded their capacities for life on the road. When not touring, she chose to keep to herself, declining social invitations, preferring her solitude in her beautiful Beverly Hills, CA. home. She was born to bring joy to the world through her singing, for which she earned the title First Lady of Song, Queen of Jazz and Lady Ella.

Click here to learn more about Ella Fitzgerald

#EllaFitzgerald #jazzvocalists #singers

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