This singer extraordinaire is considered by many to be the greatest jazz vocalist of all time. Only Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday have reached comparable heights. Throughout her long and brilliant career, she worked with all the acknowledged jazz legends, from Louis Armstrong to Duke Ellington-and of course with Frank Sinatra. Ella Fitzgerald's vocal agility, improvisational ability and stage presence were nothing short of formidable-enough to captivate an entire planet.
Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Virginia, in 1918 and brought up in an orphanage in New York, where she was introduced to singing by way of religious chant. In 1934, a 16-year-old Ella took top honours in a competition held by the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
The young woman sang with such ease and pitch-perfect precision that band leader Chick Webb, who'd watched her perform, wasted little time in hiring her. Almost immediately, Ella left no doubt that she was a born orchestra singer, coupling a powerful voice with a strong stage presence.
Ella Fitzgerald quickly became the orchestra's star attraction. Much to his credit, Chick Webb-also the drummer with the orchestra-did not take umbrage. Better yet, through his wise counsel he was able to help the singer gain even greater assurance. A string of popular successes followed-A-Tisket, A-Tasket, Undecided, My Heart Belongs to Daddy, and the list goes on...
A tempting offer refused
After Webb passed away in 1939, Ella Fitzgerald turned down a tempting offer to join the Benny Goodman Orchestra, the most popular jazz ensemble of the period. Instead, she took over from Webb as band leader at the sprightly age of 22.
According to observer, the singer was well aware that "after the spring of 1936 her presence with the orchestra for shows and recordings catapulted it to a success that, as sudden as it was unexpected, was entirely justified."
Ella Fitzgerald remained at the helm of the orchestra until 1942, when, exhausted, she walked away from her position as its leader. Now the object of adulation by musicians and the public alike, Ella, the international star, hired an agency to manage her career while keeping a sharp and critical eye on all decisions.
In 1946, Ella joined the aristocratic Jazz At The Philharmonic orchestra led by Norman Granz. The decision propelled her to even greater heights, with fans the world over seduced by her phrasing and vocal gymnastics, her commanding stage presence and her unfailing assurance.
By the 1950s, Ella Fitzgerald had become the world's most revered jazz artist, alongside Louis Armstrong. Together, the two recorded the memorable Porgy and Bess. Ella also went on to work with a who's who of jazz pianists, including Oscar Peterson, John Lewis, Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Jimmy Rowles and, in the 1980s, Paul Smith.
Ella Fitzgerald recorded her most famous songs after leaving Decca in favour of the legendary Verve label. The period from 1955 to 1965 was especially productive. By that time, Ella had become the undisputed master of scat. The live recording, Ella In Berlin, released in 1960, featured an Ella at the summit of her art. Her improvisation on Mack the Knife-Ella had momentarily forgotten the lyrics-was particularly memorable.
At the end of the 1960s, Fitzgerald tried her hand at pop and rock, neither of which were suited to her. The singer quickly returned to form, however: Norman Granz launched a new label, Pablo, on which Ella recorded a few accomplished albums during the 1970s.
Ella's swan song
On her first visit to the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal in 1983, the grande dame presented a concert that was broadcast nation-wide on live pay-TV. By then, her voice had begun to lose a touch of its timbre and she had also begun to experience health problems. Just the same, Ella gave a superbly refined show.
Four years later, she returned to Montreal to close out the Festival. That evening, before an adoring audience, the singer took the stage on the arm of pianist Paul Smith just weeks after suffering major heart problems. At 69, her concerts were now fewer and farther between.
On the program were such jazz classics as Round Midnight by Thelonious Monk and In a Mellow Tone by Duke Ellington. Fans at Théâtre St-Denis were also treated to a rousing rendition of Summertime as well as Ella's classic imitation of Louis Armstrong.
Ella Fitzgerald gave her final concert at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1991. Afterwards, her health continued to decline. She spent the final few years of her life with her immediate family, and on June 15, 1996, Ella Fitzgerald passed away at her home in Beverly Hills, California.