(singer; born April 25, 1917, Newport News, Virginia; died June 15, 1996)
Considered the first woman of jazz, Ella Fitzgerald continuously extended the boundaries of American popular music throughout her career. Her voice posessed eternal youth and still transcends time, never going out of style.
Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Virginia, on April 25, 1917, but moved to the New York suburb of Yonkers with her mother and stepfather. She never knew her real father.
Her formal music education included piano lessons, when her family could afford them, and a high school course. Her mother enjoyed singing around the house, particularly by the jazz-influenced Boswell Sisters.
Fitzgerald began her career singing with Chick Webb's swing band, based at the Savoy Ballroom. When her mother died, Webb became her legal guardian, and under his guidance, she quickly transformed from the band's girl singer to its star attraction.
In 1935, Fitzgerald made her first recordings, but her first big hit came in 1938 with "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," a swinging improvisation of a nursery rhyme that went straight to the top of the charts. The song has since been enshrined into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Fitzgerald insisted on singing ballads as well as swing and blues. Mario Bauza, music director of Webb's band, once said, "In those days, the recording company didn't want Negroes to sing ballads. . .This lady opened the door for everybody else."
After Webb died of tuberculosis in 1939, Fitzgerald became the band's leader for two years, until she embarked on her solo career. During the 1940s, Dizzy Gillespie helped her make the transition from swing to the new bebop style.
The songs she recorded for Decca included fast jazz tunes, such as "Flying Home," "Airmail Special," and "Oh, Lady Be Good." These types of tunes helped her sharpen her skills at the wordless, improvised vocalizations known as scat singing.
After World War II, Fitzgerald joined Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic tour, a partnership that allowed her to improvise with wuch jazz greats as Charlie Parker and Lester Young. In 1956, Granz signed her on to record for his new Verve label. He reunited her with Armstrong and teamed her up with the Ellington and Basie big bands, making her an international star. Granz also decided to record her concerts, demonstrating for all, her free-form scat singing ability.
With Granz, Fitzgerald also recorded the "songbook" albums, including collections devoted to the works of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Duke Ellington, Rodgers and Hart, George and Ira Gershwin and Johnny Mercer. She recorded nearly 300 songs for these albums. Ira Gershwin remarked, after listening to the five-LP Gershwin songbook, "I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them."
Throughout her career, Fitzgerald has received almost every honor a performer could dream of winning, including the Kennedy Center Honor (1979), the National Medal of Arts (1987), France's Commander of Arts and Letters (1990), and 14 Grammy Awards. On her 75th birthday, in 1993, two retrospective compilations of her work were released: "75th Birthday Celebration," made up of her Decca recordings, and "First Lady of Song," drawn from her best Verve work. Fitzgerald died in 1996 at the age of 78.