Raised in Yonkers, New York, Fitzgerald grew up an active member of the Methodist Episcopal Church. While this time helped foster her gospel roots, Fitzgerald’s true passion was for jazz. Connee Boswell of the Boswell Sisters, Louis Armstrong, and Bing Crosby were her idols. When Ella was just fifteen years old, tragedy struck and sent her down a much darker path. Her mother’s death from a heart attack shook the young Fitzgerald to the core and pushed her into a tailspin. She began skipping school and worked illegitimate jobs for a local bordello and even a numbers runner tied to the Mafia. After being moved between orphanages and boarding schools, Ella escaped and lived out on the streets. Upon hitting this rock bottom, it was music that helped her start to climb back up.
She started singing at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem at just 17 years old. She worked her way up the ranks, starting from local singing competitions and earning her way into jazz clubs and opera houses. Before long, she was a signed recording artist with a means of chasing her ever-inflating aspirations. While she made a name for herself with songs like, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” and “(If You Can’t Sing It) You’ll Have to Swing It,” her mastery of the technique of scat singing in songs like “Flying Home” made her one of the most recognizable voices in jazz and bebop. In the 1950s, she took on the ambitious project of recording the Great American Songbook Series, dedicating entire albums to the works of composers such as Cole Porter and Duke Ellington. This series of albums set a new gold standard for creativity, collaboration, and improvisation in jazz music. Over her long and soaring career, she toured all over the world and played with some of the true greats, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Frank Sinatra. She appeared as an actress in several films and won 13 Grammy Awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1967.
No matter how much success she achieved, Ella Fitzgerald never forgot where she came from. She was an avid supporter of the American Heart Association and local medical institutions. In 1993, she founded the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, with a dedicated mission of providing children with educational and artistic opportunities and supporting impoverished families with health care, food, and shelter. After Fitzgerald’s death, the organization started a Book Program called “A Book Just For Me!” that donates over 100,000 new books every year to underprivileged children.
Ella Fitzgerald was as fearless as she was gifted. She blazed a trail for women as one of the most powerful working females in show business, served as a symbol of pride and opportunity for African Americans, and proved herself as one of the most skilled and dexterous singers of all time. In the jazz community, Ella is queen – and she always will be.