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Ella Fitzgerald

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(1918-1996 ) Singer

NPR Audio Feature NPR's Louis Armstrong Centennial Radio Project: Ella Fitzgerald
Jazz critic Stanley Crouch profiles the great Ella Fitzgerald, who made beautiful music with Satchmo on the Verve label in the 1950s.

Ella Fitzgerald
Image courtesy of William Gottlieb
Ella Fitzgerald was orphaned in early childhood and moved to New York to attend an orphanage school in Yonkers. In 1934, she was discovered in an amateur contest sponsored by the Apollo Theatre in New York City. This led to an engagement with Chick Webb's band, and she soon became a celebrity of the swing era with performances such as A-tisket, A-tasket (1938) and Undecided (1939). When Webb died in 1939, Fitzgerald took over the direction of the band, which she led for three years. She then embarked on a solo career, issuing commercial and jazz recordings, and in 1946 began an association with Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic, which eventually brought her a large international following.

NPR Audio Feature NPR's Basic Jazz Record Library: Ella Fitzgerald
NPR's Murray Horwitz and jazz critic and poet AB Spellman recommend Ella's Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie (Verve).

She also sang in a jazz group led by her husband, Ray Brown (1948-52). Early in 1956, Fitzgerald severed her longstanding connection with Decca to join Granz's newly founded Verve label. Among their first projects was a series of 11 songbooks dedicated to major American songwriters. The series made use of superior jazz-inflected arrangements by Nelson Riddle and others and succeeded in attracting an extremely large non-jazz audience, establishing Fitzgerald among the supreme interpreters of the popular-song repertory. Thereafter, her career was managed by Granz, and she became one of the best-known international jazz performers. She issued many recordings for Granz's labels and made frequent appearances at jazz festivals with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Oscar Peterson, Tommy Flanagan, and Joe Pass. Among her many honors was a Grammy Award in 1980. Her collection of scores and photographs is now in the library of Boston University.

For decades Fitzgerald has been considered the quintessential female jazz singer and has drawn copious praise from admirers as diverse as Charlie Parker and the singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Her voice is small and somewhat girlish in timbre, but these disadvantages are offset by an extremely wide range (from d to C'), which she commands with a remarkable agility and an unfailing sense of swing. This enables her to give performances that rival those of the best jazz instrumentalists in their virtuosity, particularly in her improvised scat solos, for which she is justly famous. Unlike trained singers, she shows strain about the break in her voice (d' and beyond) which, however, she uses to expressive purpose in the building of climaxes. Fitzgerald also has a gift for mimicry that allows her to imitate other well-known singers (from Louis Armstrong to Aretha Franklin) and jazz instruments. As an interpreter of popular songs she is limited by a certain innate cheerfulness from handling drama and pathos convincingly, but is unrivaled in her rendition of light material and for her ease in slipping in and out of the jazz idiom. She influenced countless American popular singers of the post-swing period and also international performers such as the singer Miriam Makeba.

The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For personal, non-commercial use only. Copying or other reproduction is prohibited.
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