top of page

Portrait Highlight - Ella Fitzgerald - American jazz and swing singer

Ella Fitzgerald (1917 – 1996) American jazz singer, sometimes referred to as the First Lady of Song, Queen of Jazz, and Lady Ella. She was noted for her purity of tone, impeccable diction, phrasing, timing, intonation, and a "horn-like" improvisational ability, particularly in her scat singing.

Fitzgerald was born on April 25, 1917, in Newport News, Virginia to William Fitzgerald and Temperance "Tempie" Henry. In the early 1920s, Fitzgerald's mother and her new partner, a Portuguese immigrant named Joseph da Silva, moved to Yonkers, in New York where Ella’s half-sister, Frances da Silva, was born in 1923. By 1925 the family had moved again, this time to School Street, a poor Italian area. She and her family were Methodists and were active in the Bethany African Methodist Episcopal Church, where she attended worship services, Bible study, and Sunday school. The church provided Fitzgerald with her earliest experiences in music.

Fitzgerald also loved dancing and was a big fan of Earl "Snakehips" Tucker. She would perform for her peers on the way to school and at lunchtime. She listened to jazz recordings by Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, and The Boswell Sisters. She loved the Boswell Sisters' lead singer Connee Boswell, later saying, "My mother brought home one of her records, and I fell in love with it... I tried so hard to sound just like her.”

She lived a particularly tumultuous adolescence. When she was only 15 her mother sadly died from injuries sustained in a car accident and though her stepfather took care of her until the spring of 1933, Fitzgerald suddenly moved to Harlem to live with her aunt and there is speculation that Da Silva might have abused her. Her grades started to suffer as she skipped school more and more until she eventually stopped attending altogether. She found jobs working as lookout for a bordello and with a Mafia-affiliated group. It wasn’t long before the authorities caught up with her and she was sent to the Colored Orphan Asylum in Riverdale in the Bronx, and then later on to the New York Training School for Girls, a state reformatory school in Hudson, New York.

The facts about this time of her life prove hazy, thanks in part to her own retellings. It seems that she survived during 1933 and 1934 in part from singing on the streets of Harlem. In 1934, at the age of 17, Fitzgerald made her most important debut in one of the earliest Amateur Nights at the Apollo Theatre. Performing in the style of Connee Boswell, she sang ‘Judy’ and ‘The Object of My Affection’ and won first prize - the chance to perform at the Apollo for a week but, seemingly because of her disheveled appearance, the theatre chose to withhold that part of her prize.

In January 1935, Fitzgerald won another talent competition and the chance to perform for a week with the Tiny Bradshaw band at the Harlem Opera House. This time everything went ahead and she was introduced to drummer and bandleader Chick Webb who just happened to be looking for a female singer. However, Webb was reluctant to sign her at first “because she was gawky and unkempt, a ‘diamond in the rough’”. Instead he offered her the opportunity to test with his band when they played a dance at Yale University. It was clear from the audience’s approval, and that of her fellow musicians, that Ella was the new voice Webb had been looking for. She joined his orchestra and gained great acclaim with them, performing across the country with the Chick Webb Orchestra. However, Fitzgerald and the orchestra are most often associated with the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, the co-founder of which was Moe Gale, who became Fitzgerald’s manager. Her rendition of the nursery rhyme ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket’ helped boost both her and Webb to national fame and it became a major hit on the radio and was also one of the biggest-selling records of the decade.

When Webb died in June 1939, his band was renamed Ella and Her Famous Orchestra with Fitzgerald taking on the role of bandleader. She recorded nearly 150 songs with Webb's orchestra between 1935-1942. In addition to her work with Webb, Fitzgerald performed and recorded with the Benny Goodman Orchestra and had her own side project, known as Ella Fitzgerald and Her Savoy Eight. While working for Decca Records, she had hits with Bill Kenny & the Ink Spots, Louis Jordan, and the Delta Rhythm Boys. Producer Norman Granz became her manager in the mid-1940s after she began singing for Jazz at the Philharmonic, a concert series begun by Granz to specifically target segregated venues. Granz required promoters to ensure that there was no "colored" or "white" seating. He ensured Fitzgerald was to receive equal pay and accommodations regardless of her sex and race. If the conditions were not met shows were cancelled.

The demise of the swing era and the advent of bebop led to new developments in Fitzgerald's vocal style, influenced by her work with Dizzy Gillespie’s big band. It was in this period that Fitzgerald started including scat singing as a major part of her performance repertoire. Fitzgerald recalled, “I just tried to do [with my voice] what I heard the horns in the band doing.” Her 1945 scat recording of ‘Flying Home’ arranged by Vic Schoen would later be described by The New York Times as “one of the most influential vocal jazz records of the decade....Where other singers, most notably Louis Armstrong, had tried similar improvisation, no one before Miss Fitzgerald employed the technique with such dazzling inventiveness.” Her bebop recording of ‘Oh, Lady Be Good!’ (1947) was similarly popular and increased her reputation as one of the leading jazz vocalists.

In July 1954 Fitzgerald made her first tour of Australia, for the Australian-based American promoter Lee Gordon. The tour was a big hit with audiences and set a new box office record for Australia, but the trip was marred by an incident of racial discrimination right at the start that caused Fitzgerald to miss the first two concerts in Sydney. Fitzgerald, her pianist John Lewis, her assistant (and cousin) Georgiana Henry, and manager Norman Granz were all asked to leave the Pan-Am aircraft they had just boarded in Honolulu and were refused permission to re-board, leaving them stranded there for three days. A civil suit for racial discrimination against Pan-Am in December 1954 and in a 1970 television interview Fitzgerald confirmed that they had won the suit and received what she described as a “nice settlement”.

By 1955 Fitzgerald had left Decca and moved to Verve Records which Norman Granz had founded specifically to produce new records by Fitzgerald. With Verve she recorded some of her more widely noted works, particularly her eight Song Book sets. The composers and lyricists spotlighted on each set, taken together, represent the greatest part of the cultural canon known as the Great American Songbook. She later described the period as strategically crucial, saying, “I had gotten to the point where I was only singing be-bop. I thought be-bop was 'it', and that all I had to do was go some place and sing bop. But it finally got to the point where I had no place to sing. I realised then that there was more to music than bop. Norman ... felt that I should do other things, so he produced 'Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book' with me. It was a turning point in my life.”

Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book was the only Song Book on which the composer she interpreted played with her. Duke Ellington and his longtime collaborator Billy Strayhorn both appeared on exactly half the set's 38 tracks and wrote two new pieces of music for the album: 'The E and D Blues' and a four-movement musical portrait of Fitzgerald. The Song Book series ended up becoming the singer's most critically acclaimed and commercially successful work, and probably her most significant offering to American culture. The New York Times wrote in 1996, "These albums were among the first pop records to devote such serious attention to individual songwriters, and they were instrumental in establishing the pop album as a vehicle for serious musical exploration.”

While recording the Song Books and the occasional studio album, Fitzgerald toured 40 to 45 weeks per year in the United States and internationally, helping to solidify her position as one of the leading live jazz performers. There are several live albums on Verve that are highly regarded by critics. Ella in Rome’and Twelve Nights in Hollywood display her vocal jazz canon, and Ella in Berlin is still one of her best-selling albums; it includes a Grammy-winning performance of 'Mack the Knife' in which she forgets the lyrics but improvises magnificently to compensate.

As she got older her voice began to decline. “She frequently used shorter, stabbing phrases, and her voice was harder, with a wider vibrato”, one biographer wrote. Plagued by health problems, Fitzgerald made her last recording in 1991 and her last public performances in 1993. She died of a stroke in 1996.

Fitzgerald was a civil rights activist; using her talent to break racial barriers across the nation. She was awarded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Equal Justice Award and the American Black Achievement Award. Although she faced several obstacles and racial barriers, she was recognised as a “cultural ambassador”, receiving the National Medal of Arts in 1987 and America's highest non-military honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In 1993, Fitzgerald established the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation focusing on charitable grants for four major categories: academic opportunities for children, music education, basic care needs for the less fortunate, medical research revolving around diabetes, heart disease, and vision impairment. Her goals were to give back and provide opportunities for those “at risk” and less fortunate. In addition, she supported several nonprofit organisations like the American Heart Association, City of Hope, and the Retina Foundation.

There is a bronze sculpture of Fitzgerald in Yonkers, the city in which she grew up, created by American artist Vinnie Bagwell. The statue's location is one of 14 tour stops on the African American Heritage Trail of Westchester County.

In 2007 the US Postal Service released a stamp featuring Fitzgerald as part of the Postal Service's Black Heritage series.

In 2019, Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things, a documentary by Leslie Woodhead, was launched in the UK. It featured rare footage, radio broadcasts and interviews with Jamie Cullum, Andre Previn, Johnny Mathis, and other musicians, plus a long interview with Fitzgerald's son, Ray Brown Jr.


Ella Fitzgerald, coloured pencil on paper June 2020

Available as

Ella Fitzgerald, graphite and coloured pencil on paper January 2021

Available as


bottom of page