The First Lady of Jazz
February 15, 2023
Ella Fitzgerald, one of the most popular jazz female musicians of all time, was widely known as the “First Lady of Jazz.” During her time, she won 13 Grammys and sold over 40 million albums in her career. She also worked with many famous jazz artists including Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, etc.
But behind Fitzgerald’s great success is humble beginnings. She was born on April 25, 1917, in Newport News, Virginia to William Fitzgerald and Temperance (Tempie) Fitzgerald, but her parents separated shortly after her birth. She moved to Yonkers, New York, with her mother Tempie, and stepdad Joseph Da Silva. While in New York, Fitzgerald used to work as a runner for local gamblers. Unfortunately, her mother and stepfather died in 1932, and she went through a troublesome and rebellious phase. However, Fitzgerald looks back on her past as an inspiration for the emotion behind her music.
Ella’s first step into the music world was in 1934, when she sang at the Apollo theater for a music/dance contest. The audience was widely impressed, and it was there that she met saxophonist Benny Carter, who helped launch her music career by hiring her to travel with their band. In 1938, Ella recorded her first song, “A-Tisket, A-tasket,” and it hit number one, selling one million copies. This timeless classic was her real introduction to fame.
In 1946, Fitzgerald fell in love with bassist Ray Brown. They married and adopted a son named Ray Jr. However, show business put a strain on their marriage, and they divorced in 1952 while still remaining good friends.
In the same time frame, Ella signed with Norman Granz, and Fitzgerald joined the Philharmonic tour and produced her famous songbook series. Fitzgerald’s musical talent increased jazz’s popularity, and jazz was a means of bringing together races by deconstructing racial barriers. African American musicians were not allowed to play in certain clubs and spaces however, Ella’s popularity led to an increasing demand which allowed her and other African American musicians to play in “white-only” spaces. Famous actress Marilyn Monroe and Fitzgerald developed a friendship, and Monroe helped Fitzgerald get into “white-only” venues, such as the Mocambo, a popular 50s nightclub.
In the following years, she gained worldwide popularity. In 1979, she was inducted into the Down Beat magazine Hall of Fame, and in 1987, President Ronald Reagan awarded Fitzgerald with the National Medal of Arts. Sadly, her health slowly failed due to diabetes. Her eyesight worsened, and her legs were amputated below the knee. Fitzgerald gave her final performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1991, and she spent her final days relaxing outside with her son and granddaughter, Alice. She passed away on June 15, 1996. Although she is no longer with us, her massive impact on the music industry is still felt even to this day.
Ella Fitzgerald Biography. (n.d.). Ella Fitzgerald. Verve Records. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://www.ellafitzgerald.com/biography/#/