Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born one hundred years ago this month on April 25, 1917 in Newport News, Virginia. Ella moved with her mother and stepfather to Yonkers, New York in the early 1920s. She was a good student, somewhat musically inclined—and enjoyed hearing records by Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby in her early teens. She especially loved the singing of Connie Boswell, whom she tried to emulate.
Her life was severely disrupted in 1932 when her mother died. She was homeless for a time, and supported herself by singing on the streets of Harlem. She entered and won a talent contest at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, but was denied the week’s booking offered as part of the prize.
In early 1935, she met and auditioned for bandleader Chick Webb. Webb was not favorably impressed by her appearance, but included her on a gig at Yale. Her vocal ability and personality won over the band and the audience, and Webb hired her as a full member of the group.
She recorded under her own name starting in 1936 with the Savoy Eight (a group of musicians from the Chick Webb Orchestra including Webb himself). When Webb died in 1939, Ella inherited the band as nominal leader. She fronted the band until 1942, when she left to work as a solo performer.
In the 1940s, with the decline of the swing era and the emergence of bebop, Ella developed her phenomenal scat-singing ability. She was inspired to scat during her association with Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, doing with her voice “what I heard the horns in the band doing.”
In 1956, under manager Norman Granz’s aegis, she began to issue a series of “songbook” albums on his Verve label. Scatting had again taken a backseat to pure, clear, and delightful readings of American standards by Porter, Gershwin, and Rodgers and Hart. She also collaborated famously with Basie, Armstrong, and Ellington.
Ella Fitzgerald enjoyed a long career in jazz, receiving all due honors and accolades, until declining health forced her to retire in the early 1990s. She died on June 15, 1996, though through her classic recordings, her magnificence lingers.
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