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Revisit: Ella at 100: Celebrating the Artistry of Ella Fitzgerald

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ABOUT THE EXHIBIT

The GRAMMY Museum celebrated the life, music, and charitable legacy of 13-time GRAMMY-winning jazz singer and Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, Ella Fitzgerald with Ella At 100: Celebrating the Artistry of Ella Fitzgerald. The exhibit opened April 25, 2017, on what would have been the late jazz icon’s 100th birthday, and celebrated 100 years of Fitzgerald’s lasting legacy through rare recordings, photos, and one-of-a-kind stage costumes.

This exhibit marked the fourth GRAMMY Museum exhibit celebrating jazz music and artists. Previous exhibits included Herman Leonard: Documenting the Giants of Jazz, Blue Note Records: The Finest in Jazz, and Count Basie: The King of Swing.

The GRAMMY Museum Celebrates Ella at 100

Her voice is instantly recognizable. Her incredible intonation, vocal quality and technical abilities were self-evident, but when she sang, she radiated a joy that thrilled audiences around the world for nearly six decades.

Ella Fitzgerald was the undisputed queen of jazz singing and American popular song. Despite a difficult childhood, she demonstrated extraordinary talent as a young teen, winning an amateur singing contest at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem.  It wasn’t long before drummer and bandleader Chick Webb asked the shy 16-year-old Fitzgerald to join his orchestra. At first, he featured Fitzgerald on half of the selections, but after they hit it big in 1938 with the novelty smash, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” a song Fitzgerald co-wrote, she was never absent from the bandstand.

Throughout her career, Fitzgerald never deviated from her commitment to jazz as an art form. She could improvise right next to saxophonists like Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young (revisit her “C Jam Blues” on which she “battles” five classic jazzmen), then turn around and perform a classic American ballad while infusing it with her natural swing.

Fitzgerald’s Song Book series, produced by Norman Granz, was one of the most important achievements in her career. The series included songs by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Duke Ellington, among others.  These releases confirmed her role as the premiere American female singer.

In 1958 she became the first African-American woman to win a GRAMMY Award, going on to earn a total of 13 GRAMMYs in her career.  Her many accolades also included the NAACP Award for Lifetime Achievement and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Musical Beginnings

As a child, Ella Fitzgerald was initially more attracted to dancing than singing. However, she always remembered listening to her mother’s records: Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, and the Boswell Sisters. Especially attracted to Connee Boswell, she later emphasized this early vocal influence: “I tried so hard to sound just like her.” Soon she brought this same imitation to a more high-stakes setting.

On November 21st, 1934, a teenage Ella made her stage debut during a talent contest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Her mother had died suddenly two years prior and had orphaned Ella during the lowest point of the Great Depression. Modeling her performance after Connee Boswell, a young, broke Fitzgerald sang two songs—“The Object of My Affection” and “Judy”—and won first prize. But more importantly, her breakout performance caught the attention of bandleader Chick Webb. By 1935 he had rebuilt his entire show around her; by 1937 most of the band’s selections featured Ella’s vocals; by 1938 she and Webb had attained national fame with their #1 single “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.”

“I thought my singing was pretty much hollering,” she later quipped, “but Webb didn’t.”

Artifacts: Photograph, Ella Fitzgerald and Chick Webb, circa 1938-39; Photograph, Ella Fitzgerald, circa 1945; 78rpm record, Chick Webb and his Orchestra, “There’s Frost On The Moon”/”Love, You’re Just A Laugh”; Album Cover, Ella Fitzgerald with Chick Webb’s Band, 1962; Photograph, Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Brown, circa 1940s

“A-Tisket, A-Tasket” & the Importance of the Record

During the mid-1930s, Chick Webb’s band was strangely short on major soloists for a successful, competitive big band. The band was known as a band: a clean ensemble sound, some stylish charts, and Webb’s complex drumming front and center. When Webb hired Fitzgerald after her Apollo Theater performance in 1935, he quickly recognized her as the band’s missing element.

Though the band enjoyed more success with Ella’s vocals, they catapulted to national fame in 1938 she and Webb collaborated on “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” Fitzgerald helped with the writing, later explaining that she adapted the lyric from “that old drop-the-handkerchief game I played from 6 to 7 years old on up.” The result is a terse, childish, upbeat number that was readymade for radio and television success. Here was a jazz singer who could take nursery lyrics and give them some heft— and even this early in her career, Ella’s impeccable elocution, melodic improvisation, and overall warmth are on full display here. The song has since evolved into a jazz standard.

Artifacts: Sheet Music, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” 1938; Sheet Music, “I Found My Yellow Basket,” 1938

Ella, Beyond Music and Film

When she was done revolutionizing swing and bebop, as well as singing alongside jazz titans like Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Frank Sinatra, Fitzgerald made important philanthropic contributions.

In 1993, she created the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, an organization that has since made charitable grants across many causes. The Foundation aims to foster educational opportunities for children, provide at-risk children with necessities and healthcare, and instill them with an early love of music. Due to her initial funding, the organization remains active and crucial for children of all ages who are in need.

Artifacts: Photograph and 45rpm record, Pete Kelly’s Blues, 1955; DownBeat Magazine, “Second Annual Jazz Critics Poll,” 1954; Photograph, Jack Webb and Ella Fitzgerald, 1955; Album Cover, Lullabies of Birdland, 1955

Ella, Frank Sinatra, and Count Basie

Ella Fitzgerald had many successful collaborations with other titans of the jazz industry and one of the best was with bandleader Count Basie. Basie’s band was one of the most influential forces in swing music and he started his big band right when Fitzgerald was kicking off her career alongside Chick Webb. Like Webb had done on drums, Basie provided the rhythmic backbone of his band on piano and his light swing similarly created a natural space for Fitzgerald’s vocals. They first collaborated on Basie’s 1957 album One O’Clock Jump, and went on to record several full albums together, the first titled Ella and Basie! (1963).

A collaboration between Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra might seem similarly obvious. The two had shared parallel career trajectories as vocalists who got their start in the swing era alongside bandleaders, and Ella’s warmth and general optimism still seems a nice counter to Sinatra’s somewhat brooding presence. Although they performed together several times, they never released a joint studio or live album even while Fitzgerald was doing so with the likes of Armstrong, Basie, and Ellington.

In 1974, Fitzgerald, Sinatra, and Basie joined together for a legendary series of shows at the Uris Theatre in New York. Perhaps to underscore the finality of such a collaboration, each evening was simply billed as “The Concert.”

Artifacts: Album Cover, Ella and Her Fellas, 1957; Program, The Concert (Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra), 1975; Photograph, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald, c.1970s; Photograph, Ella Fitzgerald and Nelson Riddle, c.1962; Program, The Pablo Jazz Festival, 1977

Ella’s GRAMMY Award and beaded Don Loper gown

Ella Fitzgerald was the recipient of two awards at the 1st Annual GRAMMY Awards. Her album Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Irving Berlin Song Book won Best Vocal Performance, Female, and Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Duke Ellington Song Book won Best Jazz Performance, Individual. Over the course of her prolific career, Fitzgerald earned a total of 14 GRAMMYs, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1967. She was the first African American woman to receive the honor.

Gown, circa 1970s

Ella Fitzgerald dazzled with her musicality as well as her performance attire. This gown is one that “The First Lady of Jazz” wore during her performance period in the 1970s.