Essay: Ella Jane Fitzgerald

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  • Subject area(s): History
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  • Published on: 10th June 2012
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Ella Jane Fitzgerald

Dubbed "The First Lady of Song," Ella Fitzgerald was the most popular female jazz singer in the United States for more than half a century. Her voice was remarkable. Ella Fitzgerald's hit song "A-Tisket, A-Tasket'' grabbed national attention in 1938, and over the next thirty years, popular and critical acclaim. Born in poverty, she performed at Carnegie Hall, and became very wealthy and well liked. Ella Fitzgerald is considered one of the greatest jazz vocalists of the 20th Century. She worked with all the jazz greats; from Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Nat King Cole, to Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Goodman. She performed at top venues all over the world, and got full houses easily. Her audiences were very diverse. They were rich and poor, made up of all races, all religions and all nationalities.

Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Virginia on April 25, 1917. Her father, William, and mother, Temperance, divorced shortly after her birth. Temperance and Ella went to Yonkers, New York. To help support her family, Ella took on small jobs as a runner for local gamblers. In 1932, Temperance died from serious injuries that she received in a car accident. Ella took the loss of her mother very hard. After staying with her stepfather, Joe, for a short time, Temperance's sister took Ella home. Unable to adjust, Ella became increasingly unhappy and entered a difficult time in her life. Her grades dropped, and she 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 from her caretakers. When she managed to escape, the 15-year-old Ella found herself broke and alone during the Great Depression.

In 1934 Ella's name was pulled in a weekly drawing at the Apollo and she won the opportunity to compete at their Amateur Night. Ella went to the theater that night planning to dance, but when the frenzied Edwards Sisters closed the main show, Ella changed her mind. "They were the dancingest sisters around," Ella said, and she felt her act wouldn't stand a chance compared to theirs. Once on stage, Ella made the last minute decision to sing. She asked the band to play Hoagy Carmichael's "Judy," a song she knew well because the Connee Boswell's rendition of it was her mother's favorites. Ella captured the audience's full attention, and by the end of her song, they were demanding an encore. She began to sing the other side of the Boswell Sister's record, "The Object of My Affections." In the band that night was Benny Carter. Impressed with Ella's talent, he began introducing Ella to people who could help launch her career. In January 1935, she won the chance to perform for a week with the Tiny Bradshaw band at the Harlem Opera House. It was there that Ella met Chick Webb. Although her voice impressed him, Chick had already hired Charlie Linton for the band. He offered Ella the opportunity to sing with his band when they played a dance at Yale University. "If the kids like her," Chick said, "she stays." Despite the tough crowd, Ella was a major success, and Chick hired her to travel with the band for $12.50 a week. In mid 1936, Ella made her first recording. "Love and Kisses" and it was released under the Decca label. Shortly after Ella performed at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom, often referred to as "The World's Most Famous Ballroom," she began singing a rendition of the song, "(If You Can't Sing It) You Have to Swing It." Ella played with the new style of bebop. "You Have to Swing It" was one of the first times she began experimenting with scat singing, and her improvisation and vocalization made her fans excited.

Throughout her career, Ella mastered scat singing, turning it into a form of art. On June 16, 1939, Ella mourned the loss of her mentor Chick Webb. In his absence the band was renamed "Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Band," and she took on the overwhelming task of bandleader. Ella later married Benny Kornegay, a local dockworker who had been pursuing her. When she learned that Kornegay had a criminal history, Ella realized that the relationship was a huge mistake and had the marriage annulled.

While on tour with Dizzy Gillespie's band in 1946, Ella fell in love with bassist Ray Brown. The two were married and eventually adopted a son, and they named him Ray, Jr. At the time, Ray was working for producer and manager Norman Granz. Norman saw that Ella had what it took to be an international star, and he convinced her to sign with him. Under Norman's management, Ella worked with Louis Armstrong on several albums and began producing her songbook series. From 1956-1964, she recorded covers of other musicians' albums; including those by Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, the Gershwins, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, and Rodgers and Hart. Ella's manager felt very strongly about civil rights and required equal treatment for his musicians, regardless of their color. Norman refused to accept any type of discrimination at hotels, restaurants or concert halls, even when they traveled to the Deep South. While touring in Dallas, a police squad was irritated by Norman's principles, and barged backstage. 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 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." Ella continued to work hard, despite her failing health. She toured all over the world. Sometimes she would perform two shows a day in cities hundreds of miles apart. In 1974, Ella spent an amazing two weeks performing in New York with Frank Sinatra and Count Basie. Still going strong five years later, she was inducted into the Down Beat magazine Hall of Fame, and received Kennedy Center Honors for her continuing contributions to the arts.

Outside of the arts, Ella had a deep concern for child welfare. This aspect of her life was unfortunately rarely publicized, she frequently made very generous donations to organizations for disadvantaged youths, and these contributions were part of the driving force that prevented her from slowing down. 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.

In September of 1986, Ella underwent quintuple coronary bypass surgery. Doctors also replaced a valve in her heart and diagnosed her with diabetes, which they blamed for her failing eyesight. The press carried rumors that she would never be able to sing again, but Ella proved them wrong to be very wrong. Despite protests by her family and friends, Ella returned to the stage and pushed on with an intense schedule. By the 1990s, Ella had recorded over 200 albums. She gave her final concert at New York's renowned Carnegie Hall in 1991. As the effects from her diabetes worsened, 76-year-old Ella experienced severe circulatory problems and was forced to have both of her legs amputated below the knees. She never fully recovered from the surgery, and she was rarely able to perform afterwards. During this time, Ella enjoyed sitting outside in her backyard, and spending time with her son and her granddaughter Alice. "I just want to smell the air, listen to the birds and hear Alice laugh," she said. On June 15, 1996, Ella Fitzgerald died in her Beverly Hills home. Signs of remembrance began to appear all over the world shortly after her death was reported. A wreath of white flowers stood next to her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and a marquee outside the Hollywood Bowl theater read, "Ella, we will miss you." After a private memorial service, traffic on the freeway was stopped to let her funeral procession pass through. She was laid to rest in the "Sanctuary of the Bells" section of the Sunset Mission Mausoleum at Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California. Despite all of the hardships, Ella Fitzgerald made the best with what she had. She was a truly remarkable and talented woman who wouldn't let anything slow her down.

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