The woman who was perhaps the nation’s greatest jazz and pop artist began singing by accident, as legend has it.
When Ella was fifteen years old, she appeared as a contestant in a talent competition intending to dance. Her knees shook too much, and so she sang instead — and was heard by a musician in the famed Chick Webb Band. Webb brought the young girl along to sing for a one-night stand tryout, and the rest is history.
By 1937, only three years after beginning her career, Fitzgerald won her first Down Beat Magazine award for most popular girl vocalist, and in 1938 she had her first major hit, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” Dizzy Gillespie introduced her to the world of bop, and she began her lifelong improvising with “Lady Be Good.”
Of the magic her voice produced, the New York Times drama critic Brooks Atkinson wrote, “She manages things that the human voice can’t do.” Fitzgerald, with “Jazz at the Philharmonic” producer Norman Granz, began touring worldwide in 1948 — and Granz and Fitzgerald demanded equal pay for her with white artists, forcing an important issue that affected many musicians and artists thereafter.
Throughout her long career, Fitzgerald recorded the music of the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, Ellington, Armstrong, Harold Arlen, Cole Porter and more, singing with the world’s finest musicians, including Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson and Duke Ellington, to list a few.
Fitzgerald was also an inspiration for her lifetime of good works, receiving the Whitney M. Young, Jr., Award of the Los Angeles Urban League, the first woman to receive it, for those who build bridges among races and generations. She received the National Medal of Arts, and was the first woman and first pop singer to receive the Lincoln Centre Medallion, previously awarded only to internationally-famed classical musicians. Her honorary doctorates and Grammies and other awards are almost numberless — and yet when we think of Ella, what we will always hear is that pure, passionate, endlessly creating voice, and the soul behind it, telling us what she knows about life and love and hope and courage.