Ella Fitzgerald Biography: The Queen of Jazz
Ella began an unforgiving life as soon as she moved with her step-dad to world-famous Harlem, New York, after her mother died from injuries related to a car accident. It was there that her grades took a turn for the worse and she soon became homeless, working odd jobs to support herself. It was also at this time in her life, however, that she made her initial big break in the music industry. Her lifelong career of singing started at the acclaimed Apollo Theater, where she took first prize in an amateur talent competition (though she didn’t receive an invite to perform there further because of her homely appearance).
The Road to Jazz
A year later, she met Chick Webb, a bandleader who signed her to accompany his music, and most of her recordings during this time was considered pop fluff music. However, her original rendition of the nursery rhyme “A Tisket, A Tasket” in 1938 revealed her to the eye of the public.
With Webb’s death the following year, Ella spearheaded the band herself, recording more than 100 pop songs until 1942. Here started Ella’s more famous solo career as a singer for Decca Records in New York. During this time a major shift in jazz was happening: the genre was moving away from big bands in favor of smaller accompaniments. As a result, Fitzgerald began experimenting with improv and scatting, a technique that hadn’t previously been applied to such amazing effect. Ella was an innovator in this respect, lambasting a new wave of jazz vocalization, which is most fondly remembered in her 1945 hit “Flying Home”.
Ella’s ride to the top of the nation’s singers wasn’t a smooth one. In fact, she faced adversity in the form of racial and sexual discriminations, most notably in an incident involving a Pan-Am flight to Australia in which she and other black band members had to disembark in Honolulu. The case went to court where Ella and the others eventually won a civil suit against the airline, but instances such as these were a common theme in Ella’s life as a black entertainer.
Despite these setbacks, Ella went on to collaborate with the biggest names of the industry at the time: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Joe Pass, among others. She also appeared in numerous TV and movie spots, and performed at the White House under the Reagan Administration. Just six years after that show, Ella received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1958, she was the first black woman to win a Grammy.
Today, Ella’s legacy lives on, and though she died just twenty-two years ago, her impact can still be felt, most especially in the world of jazz. She was a major influence on the modern sound of jazz, and the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, started in 1993, continues to encourage music education and opportunity for at-risk children.