Even though Ella Fitzgerald has been gone from our presence for a little over two decades, her voice and music continue in tribute albums and performances of some of the finest jazz talent around the world! Just a sampling of those are Aretha Franklin, Victoria Wyndham, Jane Monheit, Dianne Reeves and Natalie Cole! Her tribute albums are numerous and contain quite a roster of very talented folk. Ella's talent alone was legendary and her signature sound was so unique that if you heard her on the radio- five notes and three words were enough to identify her. She was purely an original and I remember the first time I heard scat was on a Fitzgerald platter.
The past week marked the 100th anniversary of her birth on April 25, 1917 at Newport News, Virginia. On the day, a lecture was given by Larry Applebaum on her life and career at the Whittall Pavilion at the Library of Congress. On the same day there was a tribute concert at Birdland in NYC with musical artists recreating her tunes. She began singing in her teens with the Chick Webb Orchestra making her first and most popular early hit A-Tisket, A-Tasket and went on to sing with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, The Ink Spots and Dizzy Gillespie. It's important to note that her amateur singing debut was officially at the age of seventeen when she took the stage on November 21st of 1934 on Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater. Doing a tribute herself of Connee Boswell, she sang Judy and The Object of My Affection and won first prize ! A few months later she was singing with a band at the Harlem Opera House and met Chick Webb there. Fitzgerald recorded nearly 150 songs with Webb's orchestra between 1935 and its final end in 1942, when she went solo. After that she sang with many different bands but always headlined with popular artists. She made the transition to bebop seamlessly and became an integral part of the Dizzy Gillespie band making it definitive with what today would be called vocal stylings. By 1945 she'd made a record called Flying Home with arranger Vic Schoen and received glowing reviews, amongst them the New York Times said it was "the most influential jazz record of the decade".
Ella's discography and collaborations are so numerous that I would direct you to visit her web site to get everything you would want to know. There will be a full schedule this year of the tribute performances in and around Washington, D.C. and I urge everyone to get out and attend some of these if you are a true jazz fan. The above mentioned artists have done very well with her work but, of course, there ain't nothing like the real thing baby ! By the 50s Ella was covering just about every jazz song worth listening to in such composers as Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Gershwin, A.C. Jobim and went international with Norman Granz in the 60s. At that time she made Ella in Berlin which became her all-time best selling album for which she won a Grammy with her performance of "Mack the Knife." It vies with Louis Armstrong's version which is also world famous. She even made four albums with Joe Pass in the 70s and 80s which rarely get attention but are quite poignant. A zenith year came in 1975 when Ella and Frank Sinatra appeared on Broadway along with the Count Basie Orchestra in September in which the shows grossed $1,000,000 for a two week run!
Even though she looked the picture of health through most of her years Ella was diagnosed with diabetes type 2 in her later years and had several hospitalizations because of illnesses brought on by her condition. She passed away in June of 1996 at the age of 79 in Los Angeles and was interred there.
Her awards are numerous and include thirteen Grammy Awards plus the Lifetime Achievement Award she garnered in 1967. In 1958 she was the first black female to win at the inaugural show. In 1990 she received an honorary doctorate in Music from Harvard University !
If you are blessed to live in the vicinity of her hometown at Newport News, VA you may want to check out a music festival which is celebrated every year (since 1997) to honor her and her music for an entire week. The roster of Jazz musicians and singers who participate have grown exponentially over the years and you'll have a chance to hear what an impact this fantastic singer has had over the years and continues to exert even though her residence is now on high. Please do avail yourself of her musical influence and sound. There is no other like it in the world and there may never be again !
The Castle Lady