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April is Jazz Appreciation Month. While there are a number of amazing jazz musicians to honor during this month, it seems fitting this year to celebrate Newport New native and jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald. This year would have been her 100th birthday.
"I guess what everyone wants more than anything else is to be loved. And to know that you loved me for my singing is too much for me. Forgive me if I don't have all the words. Maybe I can sing it and you'll understand." — Ella Fitzgerald
Born in Newport News on April 25, 1917, Ella soon migrated to Yonkers, New York, with her mother Tempie. They later moved in with Tempie’s then-boyfriend, Joe, and a baby, Frances, was born.
In 1932, Tempie died from injuries received in a car wreck and Ella’s stepfather became abusive. Ella went to live with her Aunt Virginia in Harlem; Joe died from a heart attack and little sister Frances joined them. Ella became depressed, her grades dropped, she skipped school and got in trouble with the police. They finally placed her in a Hudson River reformatory where Ella was beaten by the caretakers. At 15, Ella decided she had endured enough — she ran away and survived homeless and broke during the Depression. She never complained about her struggles, but channeled her suffering through her music and her children's foundation.
In 1934, Ella performed on Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater. After watching the Edwards Sisters’ incredible dancing routing, she decided not to dance at all but to sing “The Object of my Affection” (a favorite of her mother Tempie) and her star finally began to rise.
Offstage, Ella was shy and reserved, but she felt loved and appreciated by her audience when performing. She started her career at $12.50/week traveling with the band of Chick Webb, who mentored her as a father figure. Ella began to improvise and experiment with scat singing, which she turned into an art form and her vocal signature.
In 1938, at age 21, Ella recorded a playful version of the nursery rhyme, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket." The album sold 1 million copies, hit #1, and stayed on pop charts for 17 weeks. Suddenly, Ella Fitzgerald was famous!
After the death of Chick Webb, Ella took over as bandleader for a time. While on tour with Dizzy Gillespie's band in 1946, Ella fell in love with bassist Ray Brown. They married and eventually adopted a son, whom they named Ray, Jr. Neither marriage nor motherhood was much of a success for Ella, who traveled extensively to make a living.
Ella recorded songs by all the big composers in the 50’s and 60’s and appeared on the popular TV variety shows. Her manager Noman Granz tried to protect Ella from flagrant racial discrimination when on tour. With support from her huge fan and lifelong friend Marilyn Monroe, the owner of the Mocambo nightclub booked Ella every night; she never had to perform at a small jazz club again.
Ella suffered from severe heart disease and later diabetes (which caused her failing eyesight), but she never slowed down her schedule of touring, performing, caring for family or supporting disadvantaged youths. By the 1990s, Ella had recorded over 200 albums. In 1991, she gave her final concert at Carnegie Hall — her 26th time there. After undergoing amputation of both lower legs, she began to fail.
Ella died at home on June 15, 1996 at the age of 79.
Described as the ‘First Lady of Song’, in a career spanning over 6 decades, Ella sold over 40 million albums, won 13 Grammy Awards, including a Lifetime Achievement award in 1967. In 1987, President Reagan awarded Ella the National Medal of Arts. France presented her with their Commander of Arts and Letters award. Yale, Dartmouth and other universities bestowed Ella with honorary doctorates. She performed at top venues worldwide, overflowing with audience members as diverse as her vocal range: rich, poor, all races, all ages, all religions, and all nationalities. Many of them had just one factor in common — they all loved Ella.
Newport News hosts a festival every year to celebrate Ella Fitzgerald. Check out the Downing Gross Cultural Arts Center's Ella Fitzgerald Centennial Celebration page to learn more.
To learn more about jazz, visit National Museum of American History's Smithsonian Jazz page. Here is a list of resources about Ella Fitzgerald and jazz available at your library:
The biographical information came from the Official Website of Ella Fitzgerald and the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation websites.