Ella Fitzgerald: First Lady of Jazz History Essay

Ella Fitzgerald is known as the “First Lady of Jazz”, the owner of the voice range of three octaves, a master of improvisation and scat, 13-time winner of the Grammy and many other honorary awards. During her 50-year career, she has released about 90 albums and compilations.

The singer has collaborated extensively with other famous jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Quincy Jones, and Count Basie. Furthermore, her talent was highly appreciated by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Ira Gershwin.

By the end of the fifties, she managed to record almost all the songs of the classic American repertoire. “First Lady of Jazz” continued to sing until the end of the eighties. During the life of this famous singer, over 40 million records with her beautiful songs were sold out.

Early Life and Family

Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born on April 25, 1917 in Newport News (Virginia, USA). Ella grew up in poverty – her father left the family, and her mother died early in an accident. In school, the African-American orphan girl willingly sang, loved dancing, but it was hard for her to realize the natural talents because of innate shyness. In fact, Fitzgerald preferred to dream of a career of a professional dancer, but in 1932, her home life imploded with the death of her mother and abusive treatment by her stepfather (Shadwick, 2007).

It should be noted that Ella`s family adhered to the principles of Methodism; they often attended church and Sunday services. Little Ella studied the Bible since childhood and loved hymns. Like many black singers of that time, the girl developed her brilliant musical talent through singing spirituals and gospels.

Despite the family`s poverty, Ella grew resilient and good-natured child. Like all African-American children of her quarters, she was fond of dancing, movies, music, and even sports. When her mother died, Ella moved to her aunt in Harlem. The girl dropped out of school and disappeared on the streets. In the evenings, Ella Fitzgerald earned money dancing in clubs. This continued for two years, and in 1934, the poor girl left home.

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The Beginning of the Career

In 1934, Ella came to New York and recorded on an amateur contest. Her performance at the famous Harlem theater “Apollo” was truly unmatched, and the musical critics confirmed that it was a resounding success. Ella performed two songs in such a strong voice that the stunned audience burst into applause. During her performance, she was accompanied by the orchestra of Benny Carter. Soon, Ella Fitzgerald participated in other competition and won again. As a reward, she has performed together with the orchestra of Tiny Brad show throughout the week. It was at this competition where she has attracted the attention of the head of the swing jazz band Chick Webb, who offered the girl to become a soloist of his ensemble. It became the start of her long journey on the stage.

In 1942, Fitzgerald left the group in order to pursue a solo career. By signing a record deal with Decca, she had written several popular hits with artists such as Ink Spots, Louis Jordan, and the Delta Rhythm Boys. During Ella`s appearance at a jazz horizon, the core musical trend was swing with its clear melodic line. When gradually it was replaced by the more “cheeky” bebop, it was Ella Fitzgerald who introduced the new forms of jazz vocal improvisation. She even called herself “another instrument in the orchestra”.

The Artistic Career of Ella Fitzgerald

Trying to find her own way in jazz, Ella Fitzgerald went headlong into the creative search. At that time, she was not considered a jazz singer; however, Fitzgerald was the promoted and famous pop star. Her path to jazz was quite difficult and time-consuming. Being able to simulate Louis Armstrong singing during the early years, she still did not feel jazz flavor. The desire to sing jazz came to her much later. It should be pointed out that frequent communication with Armstrong, Basie, Ellington and young people who, like Ella, were looking for new and creative ways had a decisive influence on her artistic development.

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By the mid-forties, Fitzgerald became totally another singer; she no longer wished to sing someone else’s song, as well as imitate other people’s improvisations. Ella felt ready to improvise herself, and she had something to say to the public. At the end of the war, the era of bebop began. Soon, the world discovered a new jazz star. Ella with her singing blurred the boundaries between the instrument and voice; she was able to create vocal improvisations on the syllable (scat). Ella Fitzgerald has perfected this masterly technique. The peak of her career was in the sixties. Norman Granz became Fitzgerald`s manager and her firm guiding hand. He has helped her to create the personal label – Verve Records, which became the key in her life. In 1952, the solo album which brought unprecedented fame to the singer was released. This album was followed by the release of several other ones. Fitzgerald began performing not only in the US, but also went on tour to many countries. She has won every major jazz singing award with such repetition so as to make the only real interest in the female vocalist division of any jazz poll lie in who will finish second (Robinson, 1961).

Fitzgerald had an impeccable sense of rhythm and intonation. Her sensitivity to harmony is simply stunning. One of the largest unrealized projects in the career of Ella Fitzgerald was the collaboration with Frank Sinatra. They have not recorded a single joint studio or live album. However, Sinatra and Fitzgerald appeared together in various TV shows. Now, as a showbiz icon, she was one of the performers invited by Frank Sinatra to participate in President John F Kennedy’s 1961 Inaugural Gala (Shadwick, 2007).

The most fruitful for Fitzgerald was the collaboration with musicians such as Bill Kenny and his vocal group The Ink Spots, Louis Armstrong, guitarist Joe Pass, Count Basie and Duke Ellington. Undoubtedly, Ella Fitzgerald has influenced all subsequent generations of jazz musicians, and it is impossible to overestimate the monumentality of her artistic legacy. Her famous “Dream a Little Dream of Me”, “Summertime”, “Mack The Knife”, “Black Coffee”, “Sunshine of Your Love”, “Cry Me a River”, “Someone to Watch Over Me” are the favorite songs of the jazz-lovers all over the globe.

Those who were lucky enough to see a live performance of young Fitzgerald recalled how this shy girl suddenly blossomed on the stage, how her eyes began to shine and her voice captivated the hall note by note. The strength of her voice impressed everyone – the affected public told afterwards that even the crystal glasses burst during her live performances. Ella Fitzgerald’s voice has been described as sounding more like an instrument than any other mice in this century (Nagueyalty, 2001).

Overtime, the singer became genius in “scat” – a special technique, in which the person imitates the sound of the instrument. For example, she did it in the song “Lemon Drop” – Fitzgerald`s voice was “competing” and “talking” on an equal footing with other instruments in the orchestra.

Last Years of Life

The singer’s voice has deteriorated in the mid-seventies. She almost completely ceased to perform and record starting from 1991. In 1993, she gave a final concert in San Francisco. Ella Fitzgerald was very ill in her last years. The doctors amputated both legs because of her diabetes. She spent the last years of her life in Beverly Hills in her estate. In mid-June of 1996, the singer died.

Personal Life

Ella Fitzgerald Ella first married in 1941 Benny Carnegie. Two years later, the marriage broke up. The second time she got married in 1947. This time, a musician singer-bassist Ray Brown became her husband. They lived together until 1953, but family life hindered her career, and that was the reason of their divorce. Despite the break of the family ties between Ella and Ray, their musical collaboration has not stopped. In addition, Ella’s nephew adopted by the couple linked the former spouses. When the boy grew, he decided, like his adoptive parents, to associate his life with music.

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In 1957, the press wrote about the alleged wedding of Ella Fitzgerald and Thor Larsen. This information has remained on the level of rumors, because Larsen turned to be the conman. After her death, it became apparent that Fitzgerald kept her private life much a secret. She shied away from interviews and personal questions, allowing only her voice and the music talk for her (Nagueyalty, 2001).

Ella Fitzgerald and Jazz

For decades, the authorities tried to ban jazz, silencing and ignoring it, but the power of music was stronger than all the dogmas. By the XXI century, jazz has achieved one of the highest points in its development and did not intend to slow down the pace. Jazz is much more than simply the music – it also embodies a look, feel, and mood (Margena, 2014).

The main features of jazz are improvisation and freedom of rhythm, as well as free breathing melodies. Jazz musicians should be able to improvise collectively or perform solo on the accompaniment background. Jazz musicians believed that if the heart shudders and stops when the fugitive fingers piano rhythms are heard from somewhere in the depth of a scene, and the glow sax from the rays of spotlights are visible in the eyes, if an evening spent in a relaxed and fun atmosphere is what the person seeks, then jazz is the music that he or she needs.

Jazz originated from a mixture of European and African musical cultures that appeared after discovering of America by the Europeans. African culture in the face of black slaves was transported from the western coast of Africa to America. It brought improvisation, plastic, and rhythm into jazz, while Europeans brought melody and harmony of sounds as well as minor and major standards.

Ella Fitzgerald received no musical training, she never visited singing lessons and did not need to warm up before performances. She had a mezzo-soprano, but she could sing both above and below it. The range of her voice was three octaves, from D flat of minor octave to D-flat of third octave. In technical terms, she had an impeccable and sophisticated rhythmic sense, flawless intonation, and an extraordinary harmonic sensibility (Nagueyalty, 2001).

The musical critics agreed that unlike many other famous singers, Ella Fitzgerald possessed a truly unique and valuable voice, the sound of which could be called the most beautiful and perfect among those ever heard. Fitzgerald had a greater voice range than most opera singers. Many of them, including Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, were the fans of her work. Ella Fitzgerald literally lived by melody; she took every note without an effort or difficulty.

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According to Fitzgerald, it was not easy to speak in front of large crowds of people. She was very modest and shy; she did not maintain a relationship even with those musicians whom she worked successfully with, meeting them only during recordings and concerts.

Ella Fitzgerald actively helped charities such as the American Heart Association and the National Medical Center “City of Hope”. In 1993, she founded the charitable foundation named after herself, which deals with education, helps young musicians, as well as research of diabetes and patient care. In addition, the Fund is involved in many campaigns; one of them is called A Book Just for Me! It provides more than one hundred thousand of new books to children from low-income families annually. These facts, coupled with her classic simplicity and genuine humility, made Fitzgerald a one-of-a-kind entertainer, a true legend of her time (Nagueyalty, 2001).

Ella Fitzgerald sang dissolvingly in music. She seemed to forget about everything just becoming a clot of jazz. Only she could easily improvise with voice and text, was floating freely in music, could easily change her voice, and constantly adorn the already known melodies.

In conclusion, it should be noted that the vocal of Emma Fitzgerald is considered the most elegant in the history of Jazz. Ella Fitzgerald was unsurpassed scat singer who had perfect elocution. People always understood what she sang, her every word and every sound. The only drawback of Jazz Queen (however, a little curious) was that Ella was very cheerful and could not sing too lyrically. Even in the composition “Love for Sale”, she sounded fun and happy. Whatever it was, when the critics evaluate her career as a whole, they come to the conclusion that Ella Fitzgerald was the greatest woman jazz-singer.