Ella Fitzgerald: 25 April 1917 – 15 June 1996
It’s been a while since I paid tribute to the notable Black women of the world! Today marks the birth anniversary of the beautiful, talented, legendary “Queen of Jazz,” Ms. Ella Fitzgerald. She would have been 96 years of age.
She was also known as the “First Lady of Song” and “Lady Ella,” and had a vocal range which spanned an amazing three octaves. She was the most popular jazz singer in the USA for over half a century; during her lifetime, she won 13 Grammys and sold more than 40 million albums. More from her official website:
“Her voice was flexible, wide-ranging, accurate and ageless. She could sing sultry ballads, sweet jazz and imitate every instrument in an orchestra. She worked with all the jazz greats, from Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Nat King Cole, to Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Goodman. (Or rather, some might say all the jazz greats had the pleasure of working with Ella.)
She performed at top venues all over the world, and packed them to the hilt. Her audiences were as diverse as her vocal range. They were rich and poor, made up of all races, all religions and all nationalities. In fact, many of them had just one binding factor in common – they all loved her.
Humble but happy beginnings
Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Va. on April 25, 1917. Her father, William, and mother, Temperance (Tempie), parted ways shortly after her birth. Together, Tempie and Ella went to Yonkers, N.Y, where they eventually moved in with Tempie’s longtime boyfriend Joseph Da Silva. Ella’s half-sister, Frances, was born in 1923 and soon she began referring to Joe as her stepfather.
To support the family, Joe dug ditches and was a part-time chauffeur, while Tempie worked at a laundromat and did some catering. Occasionally, Ella took on small jobs to contribute money as well. Perhaps naïve to the circumstances, Ella worked as a runner for local gamblers, picking up their bets and dropping off money.
Their apartment was in a mixed neighborhood, where Ella made friends easily. She considered herself more of a tomboy, and often joined in the neighborhood games of baseball. Sports aside, she enjoyed dancing and singing with her friends, and some evenings they would take the train into Harlem and watch various acts at the Apollo Theater.
A rough patch
In 1932, Tempie died from serious that injuries she received in a car accident. Ella took the loss very hard. After staying with Joe for a short time, Tempie’s sister Virginia took Ella home. Shortly afterward Joe suffered a heart attack and died, and her little sister Frances joined them.
Unable to adjust to the new circumstances, Ella became increasingly unhappy and entered into a difficult period of her life. Her grades dropped dramatically, and she frequently skipped school. After getting into trouble with the police, she was taken into custody and sent to a reform school. Living there was even more unbearable, as she suffered beatings at the hands of her caretakers.
Eventually Ella escaped from the reformatory. The 15-year-old found herself broke and alone during the Great Depression, and strove to endure.
Never one to complain, Ella later reflected on her most difficult years with an appreciation for how they helped her to mature. She used the memories from these times to help gather emotions for performances, and felt she was more grateful for her success because she knew what it was like to struggle in life.”
Like many Black performers of that day and age, Lady Ella faced discrimination in some of the venues she sang at. Her manager, Norman Granz, felt quite strongly about the injustice and unfairness of the times and felt very strongly about civil rights. He demanded equal treatment for his musicians, no matter their skin colour, and “refused to accept any type of discrimination at hotels, restaurants or concert halls, even when they traveled to the Deep South.” More from her website:
“Once, while in Dallas touring for the Philharmonic, a police squad irritated by Norman’s principles barged backstage to hassle the performers. They came into Ella’s dressing room, where band members Dizzy Gillespie and Illinois Jacquet were shooting dice, and arrested everyone.
“They took us down,” Ella later recalled, “and then when we got there, they had the nerve to ask for an autograph.”
Norman wasn’t the only one willing to stand up for Ella. She received support from numerous celebrity fans, including a zealous Marilyn Monroe.
“I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt,” Ella later said. “It was because of her that I played the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the ’50s. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him – and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status – that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman – a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”
I’m amazed that this beautiful, graceful lady questioned her looks – I know what it’s like to feel inferior to others, for no good reason! So much style and talent, and a lot of humility…she gave back to communities with generous donations to charities that helped disadvantaged youths:
“Outside of the arts, Ella had a deep concern for child welfare. Though this aspect of her life was rarely publicized, she frequently made generous donations to organizations for disadvantaged youths, and the continuation of these contributions was part of the driving force that prevented her from slowing down. Additionally, when Frances died, Ella felt she had the additional responsibilities of taking care of her sister’s family.
In 1987, United States President Ronald Reagan awarded Ella the National Medal of Arts. It was one of her most prized moments. France followed suit several years later, presenting her with their Commander of Arts and Letters award, while Yale, Dartmouth and several other universities bestowed Ella with honorary doctorates.”
Rest in peace, lovely lady – you shine brighter than most! Enjoy these select Ella Fitzgerald quotes and songs.
“I’ve had some wonderful love affairs and some that didn’t work out. I don’t want to dwell on that and I don’t want to put people down, but I think all the fabulous places I’ve been, the wonderful things that have happened for me, the great people I’ve met – that ought to make a story.”
“Some kids in Italy call me ‘Mama Jazz; I thought that was so cute. As long as they don’t call me ‘Grandma Jazz.'”
“Oh, I have gobs and gobs of ideas, but… well, you dream things like that, and that’s what these are, you know–my day dreams.”
“I sing like I feel.”
“The only thing better than singing is more singing.”
“Once, when we were playing at the Apollo, (Billie) Holiday was working a block away at the Harlem Opera House. Some of us went over between shows to catch her, and afterwards we went backstage. I did something then, and I still don’t know if it was the right thing to do – I asked her for her autograph.”
“Just don’t give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don’t think you can go wrong.”
Next, the songs – enjoy!
“Puttin’ On the Ritz”
“Cry Me a River”