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A Glimpse at the Life of Ella Fitzgerald

This fall we are excited to celebrate the lives and legacies of influential female jazz singers with our offering, Legendary Female Jazz Singers: From Ella to Esperanza. In preparation for this course, we are taking a look at the life of one of the greatest musical talents – Ella Fitzgerald – and sharing a few songs to hold you over until class starts on September 19.

Aug 28 , 2018
Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt Jackson and Timme Rosenkrantz, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., 1947. (Gottlieb/Wikimedia)


At the age of 17, a shy teenager from Virginia entered Apollo Theater’s Amateur Night, a random-draw contest for local performers. She intended to do what she had done many times before and impress the crowd with her dance skills. Overcome with fear, she made the hasty decision to sing a song instead. She would soon find this last minute change to be so much more than an unplanned decision fueled by trepidation. This decision would forever change her life, the lives of so many like her and the trajectory of music thereafter. That young woman from Virginia was none other than the First Lady of Song, the Queen of Jazz, the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald.

Best known for a voice as versatile as it was powerful, Fitzgerald began her career in 1935 as the supporting vocal talent of Chick Webb and his Orchestra. Her voice easily rivaled the largest brass instruments and her musical intuition managed to keep audiences in awe. In 1938, the group released the breakthrough hit that would rocket Fitzgerald to stardom, “A-Tisket A-Tasket”. The following year, Fitzgerald took over the band after Webb’s death and renamed it to Ella Fitzgerald and her Famous Orchestra. It was a rare, significant accomplishment for a female singer of that era. By 1942, Fitzgerald would embark on a solo career drawing unprecedented crowds worldwide, solidifying her place as a household name for decades to come. However impressive, these accomplishments did not come without their trials.

Ella FitzgeraldElla Fitzgerald performing in Amsterdam, 1961. (IISG/Wikimedia)

An artist in twentieth-century America, Fitzgerald was forced to contend with the racial discrimination that often barred African American musicians from widespread appreciation. In 1954, Fitzgerald and her team boarded a Pan American flight with first-class reservations, scheduled to fly from San Francisco to Sydney for an upcoming concert. After a temporary stop in Honolulu, the party was denied access to re-board the aircraft and watched as the plane left without them. In turn, Fitzgerald filed a discrimination suit against the airline, with little interest in the financial gain but rather, a strong focus on establishing the principle that she would not tolerate discrimination in any form.

With this same sense of determination, Fitzgerald continued, throughout her career, to challenge these seemingly impenetrable societal barriers that left unchecked could have impeded her success.

In 1958, Ella became the first African American woman to win a Grammy Award and would earn thirteen others throughout her career. She was awarded the NAACP Image Award in 1988 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992, among many other notable accomplishments. With more than four dozen albums in her discography, Ella proved to be one of the hardest workers in the music industry, before or since. Her collection boasts countless collaborations with some of the best instrumentalists and vocalists, including pianists Oscar Peterson, Paul Smith and Tommy Flanagan and band leaders Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Count Basie. Her silky voice and innovative techniques have continued to inspire jazz singers hoping to follow in her footsteps. Ella Fitzgerald remains one of the most influential artists not only in jazz but in American music as a whole. And with one listen to an Ella Fitzgerald record, it is not hard to understand why.

Inspired by her captivating vocal abilities and social contributions, we have put together a playlist of songs to celebrate Ella Fitzgerald and her fellow female jazz singers. We hope you are as fascinated and appreciative of the beauty these artists have gifted to the world of music as we are. Have a listen.

If you’re interested in learning more about female jazz singers and the impact they have had on music and society, be sure to check out our upcoming class, Legendary Female Jazz Singers: From Ella to Esperanza taught by Rice University associate professor of music, Dr. David Ferris.


About the Author

Devynn Moreno, Communications and Marketing Specialist