The Voice Of Jazz: Ella Fitzgerald

It seems to me that the artists who sing with the most feeling are the ones who have faced a lot of suffering in their lives.  Ella Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Virginia in 1917.  Her parents never married and they were separated by her first birthday. When Fitzgerald was only 15 years old, her mother died of a heart attack. Following abuse by her stepfather, she ran away to her aunt and, at one point, worked as a lookout at a brothel. After an encounter with the authorities, she was placed in the Colored Orphan Asylum in Riverdale, Bronx.  When the orphanage became too crowded, she was moved to the New York Training School for Girls in Hudson, New York. Eventually, she escaped, becoming homeless in return.

Ella Fitzgerald’s first recording was entitled “Love and Kisses” with Chick Webb’s orchestra. Her first hit came in 1938 with the nursery rhyme inspired “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” which she helped write. It is said that this is the record that made her a star.  After Chick’s death, Ella became the band’s leader until their split in the early ’40s, recording over 150 songs.

In 1942, Fitzgerald began her solo career and signed with the Decca label.  Fitzgerald began to develop a new vocal style called bebop, which was influenced by her work with Dizzy Gillespie’s big band. It was during this time that Fitzgerald started including scat singing as a big part of her performance repertoire. Fitzgerald once recalled that she just tried to do what she had heard the horns in the band doing, except with her voice as her only instrument. Her 1945 recording of “Flying Home,” a song created predominately of scatting, would later be described by The New York Times as “one of the most influential vocal jazz records of the decade…”

Eventually, when she tired of singing only bebop for so many years, Ella left Decca and had Verve Records created around her work.  The first album she released under this label was entitled Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook.  This album contained covers composed by lyricist Cole Porter from popular Broadway shows of that generation, including but not limited to Anything Goes and Kiss Me, Kate. Fitzgerald continued recording songs under this label for the remainder of her career.

From the early 1970’s, Ella Fitzgerald began to have eyesight problems complicated by diabetes. In 1986 she had heart surgery, but she returned to the concert stage the next year. Despite her health problems, she continued to perform at least once month into the early 1990’s.  Fitzgerald made her last recording in 1991 and her last public performances in 1993.  She died in 1996 at the age of 79.

My personal favorite Ella Fitzgerald recording is called “Airmail Special,” a song made up almost entirely of scatting.    I first came across this song in the 11th grade and immediately fell in love with it.  The skill and talent that Fitzgerald possesses is astounding.  Between the raw, raspy sound of her voice and the fun, upbeat tempo of the song, I think I could listen to it on repeat for hours.  Ella Fitzgerald is generally considered to be one of the greatest scat singers in history.  She is someone whose talent will be talked about for generations and won’t soon be forgotten.