History Spotlight – Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald sings on stage, with a double bass player and drummer behind her.

Ella Jane Fitzgerald – The ‘First Lady of Song’, The ‘Queen of Jazz’

The Music

Known for her rich vocal talents, Ella was and is an incredibly inspiring woman. Ella inspires us because of her pure love for her art, her extraordinary ability to improvise both rhythmically and melodically and her ability to break down barriers.

Born 25th April 1917, Ella was a jazz enthusiast from a young age. She idolised Connee Boswell of the Boswell Sisters, often trying to recreate her sound.

After her mother’s death in 1932, Ella moved to Harlem to live with her Aunt.

She won the top prize of $25 singing at the Apollo Theatre’s Amateur Night in 1934, aged seventeen. Ella had initially entered as a dancer but opted to sing last minute after seeing the previous dance act duo, The Edwards Sisters. It was here that she captivated audiences with her rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Judy’ and the Boswell Sister’s ‘The Object of My Affection’. Although notoriously shy, reserved and self-conscious, Ella found her home in the spotlight.

The following year, Ella won the chance to perform with the Tiny Bradshaw band at the Harlem Opera House, where she was introduced to bandleader Chick Webb.

She joined Chick’s band and they performed all over the USA but are most associated with the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. After Chick’s death in 1939, the band was renamed Ella and her Famous Orchestra where Ella took on the role of bandleader.

Her other collaborations included Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman, and The Ink Spots.

Ella became the first African American woman to win a Grammy Award, and went on to win 13 more, including the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1967. Her chart-topping number 1. hit version of A-Tisket, A-Tasket (1938) was entered into the Grammy Hall of Fame. The song was performed in the film “Ride ‘Em, Cowboy” (1942) in which Ella is riding a bus asking fellow passengers if they’ve seen her yellow basket. In the scene she is sitting at the back of the bus, one of the many discriminatory racial segregation rules in America at the time.

Civil Rights Activism

Ella was a civil rights activist, using her talent to help break racial barriers across the USA.

She was recruited to join the Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) tour in 1949, with racially integrated bands. The tour targeted segregated venues where tour producer and promoter, Norman Granz (who was also Ella’s manager), told the venues the shows would be cancelled if there was segregated “coloured” and “white” seating. He ensured Fitzgerald received equal pay and accommodations regardless of her sex and race.

At one of the JATP performances in Houston, audience integration was not well received. Police stormed into Ella’s dressing room and arrested her, Dizzy Gillespie, and other musicians. Ella recalled, “[The police] took us down…and then when we got there, they had the nerve to ask for an autograph.”

In a rare interview in 1963 she opened up about the racism she experienced when arranging tours,

“Maybe I’m stepping out (of line), but I have to say it because it’s in my heart. It makes you feel so bad to think we can’t go down through certain parts of the South and give a concert like we do overseas and have everybody just come to hear the music and enjoy the music because of the prejudiced thing that’s going on.

“I used to always clam up because you (hear people) say, ‘Oh, gee, show people should stay out of politics.’ But we have travelled so much and been embarrassed so much. (Fans) can’t understand why you don’t play in Alabama, or (ask), ‘Why can’t you have a concert? Music is music.’”

Ella Fitzgerald 1963

Ella had many celebrity fans who supported her during her career. This infamously included Marilyn Monroe. Looking back, Ella described the influence Marilyn had on her career in the ’50s,

“I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt. It was because of her that I played the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the ’50s. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him – and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status – that the press would go wild.

“The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman – a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”

Ella Fitzgerald

In her later years, Ella established the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation in 1993, which is still helping people to this day. The charity awards grants in four major areas which were important to Ella:

  • Creating educational and other opportunities for children
  • Fostering a love and knowledge of music, including assistance to students of music
  • The provision of health care, food, shelter and counselling to those in need
  • Specific areas of medical care and research with an emphasis on Diabetes, vision problems and heart disease

Her many other awards include the NAACP’s Merit Award and Image Award for Lifetime Achievement, the National Medal of Arts, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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