Admiring Ella Fitzgerald, 'The First Lady of Song' & Revolutionary American Jazz Singer

Admiring Ella Fitzgerald, 'The First Lady of Song' & Revolutionary American Jazz Singer

Ella's career reached a great height after the 40's. She started appearing in famous TV shows like 'The Bing Crosby Show' and 'The Frank Sinatra Show'.

LylaUpdated: Friday, February 09, 2024, 04:48 PM IST
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Ella Fitzgerald, known as "The First Lady of Song," was a revolutionary American jazz singer who travelled extensively and performed concerts in different parts of America. Her iconic style, crystal clear diction, the pitch perfect vocals and her ability to 'improvise' with her 'scat' singing was truly mind-blowing.

Scatting means singing meaningless yet rhythmic words that are fun to listen to. Even if these words sound meaningless, they are extremely difficult to sing because it is a skill of the singer to match the words to the rhythm of the song without losing the core essence. It is similar to what we call 'konnakol' in Carnatic classical singing, in which the percussion syllables are presented in vowels. It is not easy to sing nonsense without stumbling in the rhythm of the song!

Tired of torture when young, teen Ella runs away

Ella was an excellent student from childhood. She began her early musical education by attending 'services' at the Bethany African Methodist Church with her family and listening to jazz records her mother brought home. But Ella lost her mother in a car accident in 1932 and her life changed dramatically. After her mother's death, she lived with her aunt in Harlem for a while, but was sent to a juvenile detention centre when she came into contact with the mafia world at the age of 15. Tired of the torture at the centre, she simply ran away. 17-year-old Ella hit the road alone during the Great Depression. She started singing and dancing on the street to make ends meet, and in 1934 she nervously entered a singing competition. It is no surprise that she won the first position in it but was denied the prize - a regular week's performance at the Apollo Theater - because of her shabby attire!

Realising her talent

But Ella being a positive thinker was not discouraged by this incident. On the contrary she realized the talent and power she was born with. In 1935, a drummer named Chick Webb, who was looking for a singer for his band, spotted her at a competition at the Harlem Opera House, and the two worked together until Chick’s final days. Ella recorded about 150 jazz standards from 1935-1942. (The standard/rhyme called 'A Tisket A Tasket, A Green and Yellow Basket' is a part of the curriculum in most of the countries including India!)

More into Ella's changing life and career

Ella’s life was changing. For the first time in life she was at peace. During her prolific musical career from 1929-1995 (which is a kind of surprise given the lifestyles of jazz artists at the time!) Ella worked with all the great jazz artists from her era, but the duo of Ella and Louis Armstrong (Bess and Porgy) was truly legendary. Ella's first marriage didn’t even last for 2 years, but in the 1940s she got married to Ray Brown, the bassist in Louis' band. They also adopted a son and the marriage lasted for 12 years.

Ella's career reached a great height after the 40's. She started appearing in famous TV shows like 'The Bing Crosby Show' and 'The Frank Sinatra Show'. Her song 'Flying Home' became one of the most influential recordings of the 1950s, but in 1952 Ella got divorced and lost her house once again in life. The true ‘Jazz icon’ Fitzgerald was different from the other jazz artists from her time. She didn't dabble with alcohol or drugs, or take her own mental health by hooking up with multiple men.

The calmness in her eyes and voice would reflect her actions, even when she had to face racism as a black singer. Ella's inherent graceful manners, quiet disposition, the habit of maintaining healthy relations with the bandmates and friends, and of course her quality singing made her popular even among the high class society. The white aristocrats would even come to her rescue when she’d get imprisoned for simply being a black woman. Ella loved 'Bebop' as much as jazz. She recorded 32 songs in her 8-volume album 'Ella Fitzgerald Sings Cole Porter Songbook' and made jazz accessible even to those who were not into listening jazz. She recorded over 200 albums (almost 2200 songs) during her lifetime. Her recordings are literally a historical collection of all the important 'standards' in jazz! (Jazz has 'standards' just as Indian classical music has ‘cheej’ or ‘bandish’, and each singer has their own 'version' of those standards.)

Unforgettable career

Even at the pinnacle of her career, Ella never forgot her childhood. Apart from music, she worked as a child welfare advocate and regularly donated to help underprivileged youth. She was awarded the National Medal of Arts by Ronald Reagan in 1987 and was awarded doctorates by Yale, Dartmouth and many other universities. Starting her career on the street, Ella was the owner of 14 Grammy Awards by the end of her career! Like the other singers from her time, she could have been found in the triangle of drug addiction, men and mental illness but Ella was an exemplary, highly educated, elegant and accomplished woman. She became an inspiration for all the black women. In 1991, she gave her last performance at the historic venue 'Carnegie Hall'. Prolonged bouts with diabetes eventually led to the amputation of both her legs, and The Legendary Lady of Song breathed her last one at her home in 1996.

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