Ella Fitzgerald, photographed in 1940.

Ella Jane Fitzgerald

Born April 25, 1917, Newport News, Virginia, U.S.
Died June 15, 1996, Beverly Hills, California

Perhaps the most well known jazz singer of all time, Fitzgerald became world famous for the wide range, straight forward and welcoming sound of her voice. She became an international legend during a career that spanned some six decades.

Fitzgerald won first prize in 1934 at an amateur talent contest at New York City’s Apollo Theatre for which she was supposed to dance. She attributed this inspired performance to the influence of the jazz vocalist Connee Boswell instead.

The following year, Fitzgerald, still only a teenager, joined the William ‘Chick’ Webb orchestra. Webb later became Fitzgerald’s guardian when her mother died.

First recordings:
“Love and Kisses,” in (1935)

After Webb’s death in 1939, Fitzgerald led Chick Webb’s band after his death in  1939, until the band dissolved in 1942. By then, Fitzgerald was already well known enough to get work on tours, at New York venues, and with Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Dizzy Gillespie. At this point, she began to record prolifically.

During much of Fitzgerald’s early career, she had been noted for singing and recording novelty songs.

From 1956 to 1964, with the help of a manager, Norman Granz, Fitzgerald recorded a 19-volume series of “songbooks,” in which she interpreted nearly 250 outstanding songs by Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and Johnny Mercer. It was this project more than anything that set Fitzgerald apart as the greatest interpreter of the American songbook.

Norman Granz had access to important venues and helped Fitzgerald perform For many years the star attraction of Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic concert tours, she was also one of the best-selling jazz vocal recording artists in history.

Perhaps Fitzgerald’s most unique mark on vocal jazz was her unmatched ability to improvise as a vocalist, or ‘scat’.

As her fame grew, Fitzgerald appeared in numerous films and t.v shows. She toured around the world and recorded numerous live albums. Her duet with Louis Armstrong of all of Porgy and Bess in 1957 was particularly well received. During the 1970s, Fitzgerald began to experience health problems. including heart disease and diabetes. She had heart surgery in 1986 and in 1993, her legs were amputated below the knee as a result of severe damage due to diabetes. Fitzgerald continued to perform well into her 70s.

Fitzgerald’s clear tone and wide vocal range were complemented by her mastery of rhythm, harmony, intonation, and diction. She was an excellent ballad singer, conveying a winsome, ingenuous quality. Her infectious scat singing brought excitement to such concert recordings as Mack the Knife: Ella in Berlin and was widely imitated by others. She garnered 14 Grammy Awards, including one for lifetime achievement. She also received a Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime achievement (1979) and the National Medal of Arts (1987).