While Ella Fitzgerald’s birthplace of Newport News, Virginia, is more well-known, she spent her formative years and formal musical training in the suburb of Yonkers, New York.
She has been a singer at the Bethany African Christian Episcopal Church since she was in elementary school. Her mother passed away when she was fifteen, and her aunt raised her in Harlem, a historically black section of New York City where jazz music flourished.
She won a novice-night contest at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem when she was just 16 years old, catching the attention of saxophonist and bandleader Benny Carter (1907-).
Is it more accurate to say that Ella Fitzgerald was a pop vocalist or a jazz singer? Jazz purists claim that she lacked the psychological depth of the late Billie Holiday, the creativity of Sarah Vaughan (1924-1990), or the powerhouse presence of Anita O’Day, among others.
The “First Lady Of Song”
By 1940, Fitzgerald had already established himself as a vocal phenomenon, lauded for his crystal-clear tone, wide vocal range, effortless rhythm, and, most notably, his ability to improvise beautifully on both slow and rapid songs.
Her fame as a musician quickly surpassed that of the general public once she began performing with Norman Granz’s Jazzy at the Palace (JATP) in 1946. She went on tour with them every year and was a crowd favorite the whole time.
How High the Moon, “Oh, Lady Be Good,” and “Stomping at the Savoy” were three of her most famous and crowd-pleasing performances.
Each song would start at a moderate pace before picking up momentum while Fitzgerald “scatted” (sung harmonic variants of the melody using nonsensical syllables) over the top. Big JATP audiences were usually enthusiastic.
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Wandering The Globe
Fitzgerald’s first major film role was in Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955), and she continued to portray high-profile hotel roles while under Granz’s direct guidance. In 1957, she performed at the Bowl in Hollywood and worked at New York City’s Copacabana.
In 1958, she performed in Carnegie Hall with the Duke Ellington Symphony Orchestra as part of a lengthy tour of Europe and the United States. She stayed busy in the early part of the 1960s by performing at major hotels including the Flamingo in Nevada, the Fairmont in California, and the America in New York.
She also kept on touring with the Alfredo Peterson (1925-) trio, which included three-quarters of Granz’s JATP main rhythm section, around Europe, the Americas, and Japan. She toured and recorded with Ellington again in 1965 and 1966.
From the massive symphonic backing of Chick Webb & Duke Ellington’s orchestra to the small JATP bands, Fitzgerald was constantly surrounded by talented players. In 1968, she began working with another musician, the great pianist Tom Flanagan, who led a trio that was essential in her career up until the mid-1970s.
After undergoing major eye surgery in 1971, Fitzgerald returned to the stage a year later. Her voice, once a tool of stunning beauty and easy elegance, started to show signs of wear and tear as she sang.
Nonetheless, her talent was so exceptional that she consistently wowed concertgoers and scored hits in the recording studio. She performed with more than fifty American symphony orchestras after the mid-1960s.
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Fitzgerald passed away at the tender age of seventy-eight on June 15, 1996. She has left behind an enduring legacy. During her lifetime, she received fourteen Grammy Awards, the Kennedy Center Honor, and a doctoral degree in music from Yale. The Nation’s Medal of Freedom was awarded to her by then-President George H.W. Bush in 1992.