Jazz Appreciation Month: Ella Fitzgerald

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Ella Fitzgerald performs with her husband, bassist Ray Brown, as legendary trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie looks on. Credit: Library of Congress

World Book’s final April birthday for Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM) is a big one: jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald was born 100 years ago today on April 25, 1917. Fitzgerald was one of the best and most popular singers in jazz history. Often called the “first lady of song,” she was known for her pure and beautiful tone, extended range, flawless intonation, and strong sense of jazz feeling. She also became famous for her ability to improvise through scat singing. In this style, rhythmic wordless syllables are sung instead of lyrics. A number of events and special concerts are being held this spring to celebrate the centennial celebration—called “Ella at 100?of her birth. Fitzgerald died at age 79 in 1996.

Fitzgerald enjoyed a lengthy and successful career, winning 13 Grammy Awards and selling more than 40 million albums. She received the National Medal of Arts and is a Kennedy Center Honoree. (Such honorees are recognized for their lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts.)

JAM – Jazz Appreciation Month Credit: Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born on April 25, 1917, in Newport News, Virginia. Her father died when she was a child, and she moved to Yonkers, New York, with her mother. In 1935, she won an amateur talent contest at the Apollo Theatre in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. This led to an engagement with the big band of drummer Chick Webb. She became the band’s featured vocalist and recorded her first hit, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” with the band in 1938.

Upon Webb’s death in 1939, Fitzgerald took over the band, leading it until 1942, when she began a career as a soloist and as a member of vocal groups. While on tour with Dizzy Gillespie’s band in 1946, she met bassist Ray Brown, and the two were married in late 1947. Fitzgerald increased her fame while working with Brown and the “Jazz at the Philharmonic” touring group beginning in 1948. She and Brown divorced in 1953 but continued to perform together.

Fitzgerad became a regular performer on stage as well as television, making numerous appearances with such music legends as Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Dinah Shore, Frank Sinatra, and Andy Williams. Her most famous recordings were made in the late 1950's and early 1960's, including her dazzling songbook series in which she recorded standards by such towering songwriters as Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, George and Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter, and the duo of George Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.

Fitzgerald maintained a heavy touring and recording schedule throughout the 1970's, but poor health forced a rapid reduction in her career in the mid-1980's. Fitzgerald gave her final major performance at New York City’s Carnegie Hall in 1991. She died on June 15, 1996.

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