Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald: The Queen of Jazz

Region: Newport News, VA;
Yonkers, NY
April 25, 1917 – June 15, 1996

Picture a vibrant world in 1917, with the sweet melodies of jazz beginning to fill the air. In the midst of this musical renaissance, Ella Fitzgerald was born on April 25th in Newport News, Virginia, to parents William Fitzgerald and Temperance “Tempie” Henry. However, life took an unexpected turn when her parents separated, and young Ella relocated with her mother to Yonkers, New York.

Ella’s journey through life was as varied as the notes she would one day sing. She emerged as an outstanding student, albeit one who started school at the age of six. Her early years were marked by an immense love for dancing, and she would often showcase her talents, captivating her peers during lunchtime performances. Music found its way into Ella’s heart at the Bethany African Methodist Episcopal Church, where the harmonious hymns ignited her passion for singing.

Tragedy struck when Ella’s mother, Tempie, passed away in a car accident when Ella was just fifteen years old. Following this heart-wrenching loss, she moved to the vibrant neighborhood of Harlem in New York City, under the care of her stepfather, Frances da Silva. These tumultuous teenage years led her down a challenging path, with Ella frequently skipping school and, at one point, finding herself working as a lookout at a bordello linked to a mafia-affiliated numbers runner.

Ella’s life took a fateful turn when she was caught up in a series of unfortunate events, leading her to the New York Training School for Girls in Hudson, New York. But within the depths of these trials, her indomitable spirit shone through. Surviving through her gift of song, she sang her heart out on the streets of Harlem.

At the age of seventeen, Ella Fitzgerald made a life-altering debut on one of the earliest Amateur Nights at the world-renowned Apollo Theater. That night, her voice resonated with the audience, earning her first place in the competition. However, due to her disheveled appearance, she was denied part of her prize. This experience opened the door to countless invitations to sing and dance at various venues, introducing Ella to the world of professional performance.

Her destiny took a pivotal turn when she crossed paths with Chick Webb, a bandleader who initially hesitated to sign her due to her appearance. However, Chick Webb recognized the raw talent within Ella and gave her a chance. He put her skills to the test by allowing her to sing with his band during a performance at Yale University. Ella’s performance was nothing short of spectacular, securing her place as a professional singer.

Her journey continued with performances alongside Chick Webb’s orchestra at the legendary Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. Ella began recording songs, with hits like “Love and Kisses” and “(If You Can’t Sing It) You’ll Have to Swing It.” But her crowning achievement came with the smash hit “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” which became one of the decade’s best-selling records.

In 1939, tragedy struck once more when Chick Webb passed away. Ella Fitzgerald stepped into the role of bandleader, and his orchestra was renamed “Ella and Her Famous Orchestra.” She also formed a smaller ensemble known as “Ella Fitzgerald and Her Savoy Eight.” However, the turning point in her career came in 1942 when she embarked on a solo journey that would make her a legend.

The latter half of the twentieth century saw Ella Fitzgerald’s star rise even higher. She ventured into the world of film, graced popular television shows as a guest, and engaged in unforgettable musical collaborations with luminaries like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and The Ink Spots. These partnerships produced timeless classics such as “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall,” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).”

Ella’s list of accolades was as impressive as her vocal range. She earned a remarkable 14 Grammy Awards, the National Medal of Arts, the NAACP’s inaugural President’s Award, and the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her illustrious career spanned an astounding sixty years, with her last public performance in 1993.

Ella Fitzgerald, the Queen of Jazz, left an indelible mark on the world of music and touched the hearts of countless admirers. Her life journey serves as a testament to the power of talent, resilience, and an unwavering commitment to the art of song.