Ella Fitzgerald was born in April 17, 1917 in Newport News, VA. However, growing up in the great depression she moved to Yonkers, N.Y. when she was four. This move was prompted by the abandonment of her birth father and the remarriage of her mother to another man. Her mother died in 1932 when Ella was thirteen. Shortly afterward, she was sent to live with an aunt in Harlem after her step father became abusive. Young Ella would periodically sneak out to night clubs in Harlem to listen to the jazz artists. This same wild spirit and love of music caused her aunt to throw her out. Ella lived in an orphanage for a few years after dropping out of school. She would go on to work as a number runner and look out for brothels while living on the streets.
Ella first gained attention when she won first place at a talent contest at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. Though she was shorted the full prize she began to make a name for herself. After winning several other small contests she gained the attention of Chick Webb. The audition for his band came in 1935. Chick originally did not favor Ella but hired her because of her growing popularity with the audience. This was her break out chance to make a living as a singer. Chick Webb became Ella’s legal guardian briefly before passing in 1939. Following his death Ella took over as head of Chick’s band for two years. In 1942, she began to make solo appearances in dinner clubs and theaters.
Ella’s fame exploded after working with Chick. First and foremost, as a jazz and blues singer she also dabbled in Bebop, hard bop, and eventually went on to become an icon for scatting while playing with Duke Ellington’s Bebop band. It was clear that “Ella put scat on the map. When she and Dizzy Wright threw down their down their skippity-hop-doo-dee-bop, every soul in the place slipped into the jam” scatting became “her signature, but her voice possessed a heavenly perfection that could make a poignant ballad or a silly ditty sound equally sublime. She was a master of technique, able to leap octaves, split tones, reinvent melodies, and dance all over complex rhythms. Above all, she had class. Ella never sang an unsophisticated note, and she always left a song better than she found it. (Citation?)
Scat singing is the spontaneous and improvised use of syllables in place of actual words in the midst of a song. A “jazz scat singer has the chance to show the audience that the voice really is an instrument–one that can be played spontaneously and go beyond the melodic and lyrical script of a song”. (Citation) Scat singing is without rules and is its own form of improvised art. This is one of the few cases in music where practice is discouraged or at least the rehearsal of specific scat lines is discouraged to keep the sound and style fluid. Hendricks admits, there are certain guidelines that apply to jazz soloing in general. For example, in order to improvise on a song, you have to know the melody. And to interpret the melody, you have to know the lyrics” (Citation). The structure of jazz is important to understand because it enables you to work outside f those established constraints.
This was the case with her first hit in 1938 with a swing version of “Tisket, Tasket”. This shot her to the top of the charts. She generally “muddled along” in her singing career “until Norman Granz, later her manager (and instigator of her ‘Song Book’ albums), began to feature her in his Jazz at the Philharmonic Concerts. Mingling with great jazz musicians at a time when jazz drew enormous audiences and dominated the popular music scene, gave her the exposure and education that allowed her to move to the front rank of vocalists. Her live recordings demonstrate the musical affection she and her audience shared. Ella in Berlin, for example, has her forgetting the words to her version of ‘Mack the Knife,’ but she keeps going, making it up as she playfully teases herself. The audience loved it. This moment would probably have been cut out of a studio recording” (citation).
Her fun loving and happy nature would also become one of her greatest strengths and weaknesses. Although it gave her the quickness to be able to transform into a master scatter, it also deprived her of the depth and strong emotions of other great singers of her time like, Billy Holiday. It has been observed that “Fitzgerald is considered to have greater simplicity and directness. Her dexterity was considered equal to that of the best horn players, and Bing Crosby was not alone in saying she had “the best ear of any singer ever” and called her “the greatest”.” (Citation). Since she was one of the greatest, she continued with her career to play with other legends such as Count Bassie, Louis Armstrong, Billy Holiday, and Duke Ellington.
Ella passed away on June fifteenth in 1996 at the age of seventy-eight. However, throughout her long recording career she made over 250 albums. Ella was a remarkable person, “In her lifetime she was honored with fourteen Grammys, the Kennedy Center Award, as well as an honorary doctorate in music from Yale University. In 1992 President George Bush (1924) honored her with the National Medal of Freedom” (Citation). Comparable to other great jazz artists of her era she had one of the longest jazz careers. Unlike many other legends, Ella never fell victim to a drug or alcohol addiction. Ella was an accomplished individual, “She also wrote a number of songs and made numerous concert tours of the United States, Europe, and Asia. She appeared in several films, including Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955) and St. Louis Blues (1958).
Despite ill health, Fitzgerald continued performing into the early 1990s. “Ella hated the idea of retirement, “She complained bitterly about the rigors of doing nothing” and stated “I miss the road. I miss going overseas”. A solider till the end, she underwent cataract surgery in the 70’s and a quintuple-bypass heart surgery in the 80’s and returned to the stage both times in less than a year. “The exact cause of death was not released, but Fitzgerald’s health had declined since 1993, when both her legs were amputated below the knees due to complications from diabetes. As with any legend, Fitzgerald will be difficult to let go of. Her career spanned so many decades and so many movements, from the big-band era of the ’30s to bebop in the ’40s into the golden age of the standard in the ’50s” (Citation).