By HANNAH WONG
Most every performer has a story about how he or she made it big, but few can match the tale of the late Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996). Recognized as the best female jazz vocalist of the century as well as a pioneer in the area of jazz, Fitzgerald was respected worldwide by musicians and audiences alike.
Ironically, her earliest passion was not singing but dancing. Though she had participated in her school's musical and glee club, Ella once wrote, "I never considered myself a singer. My real ambition was to dance."
Like the rest of Harlem during the late 1920s, Fitzgerald was caught up in a dance craze that had people Lindy Hopping in ballrooms such as the Savoy. At home, Ella would imitate dancers such as Earl "Snakehips" Tucker, and during her lunch hours in junior high school, she and her friends would sneak into the theater to watch the shows.
But one day, the 15 year-old Ella entered the Apollo Theatre's amateur night after drawing the short straw in a contest with two other friends to decide who among them would perform. Naturally, she was going to dance. "There I was, nervous as can be, only 15 years old with the skinniest legs you've ever seen -- and I froze; got cold feet. The man in charge said that I had better do something up there, so I said I wanted to sing instead. The audience was laughing," she wrote.
Ella decided to sing a song from an album of one of her favorite performers, Connee Boswell, called "The Object of My Affection." Amazingly enough, the notoriously harsh audience at the Apollo stopped laughing, and soon began clapping for more. "Three encores later, the $25 prize was mine," wrote Fitzgerald. And so, her illustrious career began.
Dubbed the "First Lady of Song," Fitzgerald has clearly earned her title, recording about 70 long playing albums and more than 2,000 different songs on the gramophone format. She worked with fellow legendary artists such as Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Goodman and even performed in a few movies, including "Ride 'Em Cowboy" starring Abbott and Costello.
Amid the long list of honors Fitzgerald has received are the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts' Medal of Honor Award; 13 Grammy awards; the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences' Lifetime Achievement Award; the Pied Piper Award; the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers' highest honor; the George and Ira Gershwin Award for Outstanding Achievement; the National Medal of Art awarded by the former president, Ronald Reagan; more than a dozen honorary doctorates and the first Society of Singers Lifetime Achievement Award, named "Ella" in her honor.
On April 24, 1997, the Ella Fitzgerald Collection was officially donated to the Library after being on deposit since 1996. The collection consists of Fitzgerald's entire music library and contains items such as photographs and videotapes. Her music consists of more than 10,000 pages of scores, leadsheets and individual musicians parts for more than 1,000 ensemble and symphony orchestra arrangements.
The collection will serve various purposes, says Music Division Chief Jon Newsom. As well as being available to the public for study, the Library hopes to feature some of the collection in its own concerts. With permission from the Fitzgerald estate, music already has been loaned for performance, an opportunity that artists Frank Sinatra Jr. and Vic Damone have taken. "[Fitzgerald] and other artists are realizing that [the Library and the Smithsonian Institution] have a vigorous program that does not stop with putting [collections] on the shelf or putting it in a case or even letting someone see it if they come in, but really getting it out and making the work a part of a lively perpetuation of their art," Mr. Newsom said.
In a collaborative effort, the Smithsonian and the Library announced their Fitzgerald donations together in April and will exchange copies of their collections. The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History has also received a donation of objects from the Fitzgerald estate such as her numerous awards and the glass Fitzgerald shattered in the "Is it live or is it Memorex?" commercial.
Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Va., on April 25, 1917, but spent most of her childhood in Yonkers, N.Y., where she moved shortly after her father died. Struggling to stay afloat financially, Ella and her mother moved to the suburb just up the Hudson River from the Bronx, to live with her aunt.
While growing up, Ella took various jobs to help the family finances. She took "numbers" for a gangster-run lottery numbers game, a popular form of illegal gambling in New York, and also worked for prostitutes as a lookout for the police. "Oh yes, I had a very interesting young life," Fitzgerald said in Ella: The Life and Times of Ella Fitzgerald, by Sid Colin.
Living not far from Harlem, Ella experienced its unique culture firsthand. Harlem drew the biggest names in jazz. In her younger years, Ella used to wait on Harlem's street corners with her friends to get autographs from famous jazz artists such as Billie Holiday and Chick Webb, with whom she would later perform. Jazz music became more popular and available as artists such as Duke Ellington broadcast live from Harlem's Cotton Club and recorded numerous records.
Harlem also offered Fitzgerald the opportunities she needed to begin her career. After winning amateur night at the Apollo, she continued singing on Harlem's amateur night circuit, catching the attention of local musicians.
Finally, around 1935, some musicians arranged an audition for her with the drummer Chick Webb that changed her life and career. Webb, whose band played regularly at the Savoy Ballroom, had always avoided using female vocalists, but he was impressed by Fitzgerald and took her under his tutelage. "Some of the fellas hid me in his dressing room and forced him to listen to me," wrote Ella.
Webb was an excellent teacher and eventually became Fitzgerald's legal guardian a few years after her mother died in 1934. He provided Ella with the essential guidance that allowed her to succeed. Fitzgerald wrote, "When I wanted things to happen too fast, Chick would say, 'Never want to be anything that goes up too fast, because you come down the same way.'"
Together Fitzgerald, Webb and his band toured the country and recorded and collaborated on songs, including her million-seller, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket."
Though Fitzgerald took over the leadership of the band after Webb died in 1939, World War II and the draft finally dismembered the group. Fitzgerald soon set out on a solo career performing and recording, and eventually met impresario Norman Granz, who became her personal manager. Fitzgerald worked closely with Granz and sang on international tours with his band, Jazz at the Philharmonic. After years of working with Fitzgerald, Granz wrested her contract from the Decca recording label and signed the singer to his own label, Verve, and later, Pablo. Under his management, Ella gained more musical freedom, performing and recording the types of songs she enjoyed most.
On her famous "songbook" series with Granz, Fitzgerald sang the songs of Americans such as Duke Ellington, Cole Porter and George and Ira Gershwin. Arranged by Nelson Riddle, Billy Strayhorn and Ellington, among others, the "songbooks" became popular with both jazz and non-jazz listeners and are considered classic interpretations of the material.
Apart from her 50-year musical career, Ella married jazz bassist Ray Brown, with whom she adopted a son.
Ella had a voice that was rare in its endurance and quality. Yet while her voice barely aged, diabetes weakened her eyesight and slowed her schedule in later years. She died at the age of 79 on June 15, 1996.
Fitzgerald's style of singing heavily influenced ensuing generations of singers. She demonstrated an extraordinarily wide vocal range of 2.5 octaves, a special sense of rhythm and pitch and an unparalleled ability for mimicry and "scat" singing.
Bing Crosby said it all: "Man, woman or child, Ella is the best."
Ms. Wong is an intern in the Public Affairs Office.