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Ella Fitzgerald: 1917-1996
Ella Fitzgerald

Born: April 25, 1917 in Newport News, Virginia
Died: June 15, 1996 in Beverley Hills, California

A Giant of 20th Century Song

Copyright © 1999 

The Scotsman, 1996

Fitzgerald, Ella The death of Ella Fitzgerald brought to an end one of the great careers in popular music, although ill-health had effectively ended her performing career in any case. Although she never made any official announcement of her retirement from the stage following her final public concert in December 1992, her agent, the powerful jazz impresario Norman Granz, let it be known he was no longer accepting engagements on her behalf. Her confinement to a wheelchair after a subsequent amputation merely confirmed the inevitable.

She was born Ella Jane Fitzgerald in 1917, although her birth date was erroneously thought to be 1918, until corrected by recent biographical research. Her father disappeared from her life when she was only three, and she was brought up in New York by her mother and stepfather. The death of her mother in 1932 ended what she has described as her "warm family life", and she lived briefly with an aunt, and then in an orphanage, before running away in 1934.

She lived on the streets for several months that year, a period of her life which she never referred to in subsequent interviews, and began to enter talent contests in Harlem. A series of successes in these popular contests eventually led, via some circuitious manoueverings, to her joining the powerhouse band led by drummer Chick Webb, where she made her first series of important recordings, and quickly established herself as its principal singer.

Even at this early stage, her voice revealed the major characteristcs which would be the hallmark of her later success, notably a light but lovely purity of sound, a wide but beautifully controlled range, pinpoint intonation, an easy, organic sense of phrasing, and a girlish quality in her vocal timbre which never quite left her. These recordings of the 1930s, which included her first big solo hit with the novelty song "A Tisket, A Tasket" in 1938, still retain a remarkable freshness.

When Chick Webb died in 1939, she became the nominal leader of the band, and carried on in that capacity until 1942, when the group disbanded. She embarked on her solo career in earnest at that point, and began to build a reputation working with a wide variety of musicians, both from the swing camp and among the newly developing bebop movement.

In 1948, she was coaxed into joining her then boyfriend, and later husband, bass player Ray Brown, on stage at one of Norman Granz's Jazz At The Philharmonic shows at the Carnegie Hall, where she created something of a sensation. By 1950, she was touring regularly with the stellar JATP packages, and also working in a small group led by Ray Brown.

She had evolved a complex and sophisticated jazz style by this stage, although much of it was evident in her very early work, using her ability to scat, a jazz style in which the lyrics of a song are replaced by vocalised nonsense syllables, sung in improvised harmonic and rhythmic patterns. She performed this demanding art with a refined, highly lucid sense of structure and purposeful development which is the mark of the great jazz improviser on any instrument.

Whether she would have achieved her subsequent level of fame and popularity if she had remained strictly within the stylistic vein of jazz is a moot point. As it was, though, the 1950s saw her make the breakthrough which established her not only as one of the two or three most crucial -- and influential -- singers in jazz, but also transformed her into a worldwide success as a mainstream popular singer.

The principal agent for that transformation was once again Norman Granz, who became her official manager in 1954. He succeeded in extricating her from her recording contract with Decca in 1956, and transferred her to his own, recently established Verve label.

They began almost immediately on the series of recordings which would bring her to a huge non-jazz audience, and earn her the title of First Lady of Song. Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook (1956) was the first in a sequence of composer-themed albums exploring American songwriters of the so-called Golden Age of Popular Song, which have simply become known as the Songbooks, and have remained continuously available.

Fitzgerald recorded similar collections devoted to the work of writers like Rodgers and Hart, George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, Jerome Kern, and Duke Ellington, all of which sold in massive amounts. She also recorded with artists like Louis Armstrong, who made a similar transition from jazz to more mainstream forms, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie, as well as her Verve stablemates Joe Pass and Oscar Peterson.

The smooth, sophisticated mainstream vocal style and urbane, jazz-influenced arrangements of the Songbooks demanded a distinctly different approach to her more adventurous jazz experiments, although both were firmly rooted in an absolute understanding of, and complete respect for, the material with which she worked, whether a timeless classic or one of the throwaway novelty songs which she sang throughout her career.

The songs themselves proved amenable to these contrasting demands. Listening to her sing a song like George Gershwin's "Lady Be Good" with the rampaging Jazz at the Philharmonic crew would hardly prepare the listener for her version of the same song on the Gershwin Songbook album, such are the radical differences in tempo, rhythm, phrasing and vocal style, yet both are firmly stamped by her instantly recognisable signature.

It is one mark of her greatness that she was able to encompass both facets of her work throughout her career, and with remarkably little falling off in the quality and strength of her vocal delivery, at least until its very late stages. The success of the Songbooks took her out of the jazz nightclubs and into the world's concert halls and theatres, and she added a further dimension to her work in a series of enagagments with symphony orchestras, beginning in the early 1970s when Arthur Fielder invited her to sing with the Boston Pops.

She worked with a number of highly sympathetic piano accompanists over the years, including Tommy Flanagan, Lou Levy, Jimmy Rowles, and Hank Jones. Her unfailing sense of swing provided the foundation for her greatness as a jazz singer, but her light vocal timbre, while highly expressive in that setting and in her more mainstream vein, did not lend itself to the blues, and she rarely moved into that area. She did, however, possess a refined capacity for mimickry, and her sets generally included wickedly accurate impersonations of singers like Louis Armstrong.

She made her first recording with Chick Webb in 1935, and her last in 1992, and continued to win polls and awards with great regularity throughout her career. She appeared in cameo roles in a handful of films, incuding a memorable role as a nightclub singer in Pete Kelly's Blues (1955), but was never given the opportunity to develop that aspect of her career in significant fashion.

Next only to Louis Armstrong, she became the best-known artist ever to emerge from jazz music. and was regarded both by her peers and her global audience with the kind of affectionate veneration achieved by very few artists in any field.

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