By Nomali Cele
2018 marks 101 years since the birth of American songbird, “The First Lady of Song”, Ella Fitzgerald who was born on 25 April 1917. Like most great talents of the day, Ella Fitzgerald came up through the Apollo Theatre after a performance at one of their amateur nights.
Her first hit, a playful cover of the popular nursery rhyme “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” was recorded with Chick Webb and His Orchestra in 1938. She was 21 years old. Having been part of the band since 1935, Fitzgerald suffered a major loss when bandleader, Chick Webb passed away in 1939 but she was soon named bandleader and the band renamed to Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Band.
Ella Fitzgerald was renowned for her scat-singing, which could go toe-to-toe with most improv playing. She is considered as the queen of this form of jazz improvisation.
At the first annual GRAMMY awards held in 1959, Ella Fitzgerald became the first black artist to win a GRAMMY award. She was awarded the Best Jazz Performance, Individual for “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book,” which was released in 1957. Her second award of the night was for the Best Vocal Performance for “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Song Book.” She won a total of 13 GRAMMY awards, including a lifetime achievement award in 1966. She was the first woman to be awarded for lifetime achievement by the Recording Academy. In her lifetime she was nominated for 20 GRAMMYs.
One of the biggest breakthroughs in Ella Fritzgerald’s career came with the help of an ally. Resistance and jazz have a long relationship. Because the 1950s were still highly segregated in the US, there were still clubs that didn’t book artists, no matter how extraordinary their talents, simply because they were black. One such club was the Mocambo Club in West Hollywood. It was a popular space for music lovers. Marilyn Monroe picked up the phone and asked the owner to book Fitzgerald.
Recalling the life-changing event in an interview in the 1970s, Fitzgerald said of Monroe, “She personally called the owner of the Mocambo and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him—and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status—that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard … After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again.”
Ella Fitzgerald’s legacy isn’t just jazz history, it’s black history. She was one of the first black celebrated personalities to appear in advertising campaigns aimed at a mainstream audience, breaking across the racial divide. Unlike the many other women of jazz that history has seems to have forgotten, Fitzgerald’s name is always listed among music greats such as Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington and that’s where she belongs.
Ella Fitzgerald had eight recordings inducted into the GRAMMY hall of fame, which is the most of any woman artist. She was also awarded a medal of freedom for the arts in 1987. She received honorary doctorates from Ivy League institutions such as Yale and Dartmouth and several other universities.
Fitzgerald’s last performance was at Carnegie Hall in New York, one of the most respected music venues in the world. It was her 26th show at the venue. She passed away in June 1996 at the age of 79 due to complications from diabetes.