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Who is Ella Fitzgerald?

As the ‘First Lady’ of jazz, Ella Fitzgerald had an unrivalled mastery of improvisation, says Geoffrey Smith

Ella Fitzgerald

Who was Ella Fitzgerald?

Ella Fitzgerald was one of best jazz singers in the world. She was also known as as the First Lady of Song and Queen of Jazz. In her lifetime, she was considered the most popular female singer of her generation, winning 13 Grammy Awards and selling over 40 million albums. She worked with all the jazz greats of the age, from Duke Ellington (one of the best jazz pianists ever) and Count Basie to Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra.

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When was Ella Fitzgerald born?

Ella Fitzgerald was born on April 25, 1917 in  in Newport News, Virginia.

What was Ella Fitzgerald’s vocal style?

Even when Ella Fitzgerald sang sad songs, cheerfulness seemed on the verge of breaking in. Fans who preferred the moody splendour of Billie Holiday sometimes held this against her: it was said that when Billie sang ‘my man’s gone’, you knew he’d departed for good, while a similar line from Ella brought to mind somebody just popping out for a loaf of bread. Though the comparison is distorted and unfair, it’s true that the root of Fitzgerald’s art was a boundless joie de vivre. Coupled with her vocal virtuosity, it touched millions of people around the world and made her a queen both of jazz music and pop.

Her buoyant outlook did not result from privileged circumstances. When she won a Harlem talent contest at the age of 17, she was living on the streets and her shabby appearance put off prospective employers. But drummer Chick Webb brought her into his band and their hit 1938 recording of ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket’ made her a star. The rhythmic nursery rhyme also established the Fitzgerald sound – girlish and swinging, with an immediate appeal. After Webb’s death in 1939 she took over the band until 1942 before going solo.

Besides her infectious way with pop songs, she revealed the kind of full-throttle skill at improvisation which was usually the domain of instrumentalists.

What were Ella Fitzgerald’s most famous songs?

Her power as a scat singer bursts out from her 1945 recording of ‘Flying Home’, and ‘Smooth Sailing’ from 1951 shows her at home in rhythm and blues. Records like these make you understand why she was the brightest star of Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic tours, and the one who would close the show. In 1956 Granz became her manager and proposed her series of Songbook albums, devoted to the pantheon of American popular composers.

But jazz lovers would always prefer the spectacle of Ella live, backed just with a rhythm section, storming through such impromptu masterpieces as ‘Mack the Knife’ and ‘How High the Moon’, recorded at a 1960 concert in Berlin. We’re left gasping at her energy, invention and exhilarating creativity; her songs enshrine a life committed to performing and
a conviction that joy is the essence of jazz.

When did Ella Fitzgerald die?

Ella Fitzgerald died on 15 June 1996, three years after retiring from the stage.

What are the best Ella Fitzgerald albums?

Ella Fitzgerald: Ken Burns Jazz

Verve 549 0872

Ella Fitzgerald sings the Gershwin Songbook

Universal 539 7592 (4 discs)

Ella in Berlin: Mack the Knife

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Essential Jazz Classics
EJC 55480