Ella Fitzgerald: 100 years of jazz with the queen

May 11, 2017 Feature, Featured Slider, Features Print Print

The tinkling sound of an old stage piano riding on the bellows of the bass flows from my earbuds.

As I close my eyes, I hear the trumpets sounding the arrival of the Queen of Jazz herself.

You can call her “The First Lady of Swing,” or “The Queen of Jazz.”

I’ll call her Ella.

Known around the world as one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, Ella Fitzgerald would have celebrated her 100th birthday on Tuesday, April 25.

Memorials from National Public Radio and the New York Times were scattered throughout the mainstream media. Focusing on her contributions to jazz, singers such as Tony Bennett and Tom Jones praised her as one of “the greatest damn voices that ever sang the music.”

There’s only a handful of voices that are distinguishable from the rest of the pack of people. That swaying, sweet voice that danced on the tunes of America’s Songbook is classically original.

In an age of music full of club beats, repetitive chords and the occasional musical theater number, it is the sound of swing and jazz that take me to a time often forgotten. Where romance was relished and clubs would gather to hear real sincerity in a voice with a soul as soft as her sound.  

With more than 200 albums and over 2,000 recorded songs, Ella Fitzgerald has been one of the iconic idols of music throughout history.

Ella has been a musical influence for many up and coming jazz musicians. From the time that she started to modern times, her voice has been one of purity and soul. As a former OU student and jazz musician Victoria Heath said, “She’s such a jazz goddess.”

“I’d say that it was middle school when I first heard her scatting in “It don’t mean a thing it if ain’t got that swing” and I was amazed,” Heath said. “I was so inspired by and in awe of her ridiculous talent.”

Heath would go on to mention that she played the jazz drums for her jazz band for 10 years but singing had been her passion since she first heard Ella sing.

But her success didn’t come without a price tag. The unfortunate aspect about a life fully lived is that the depths of human despair are just as familiar as the heights of the gods above.

Born on this day in 1917, Fitzgerald was raised in a troubled home in Newport News, Virginia. Shortly after her mother separated from her father, they moved to Yonkers, New York. Trying to make sure that her family could survive, Fitzgerald worked odd jobs such as a messenger and briefly as a lookout for an underground brothel.

In 1932 that her mother died, sending her world spiralling out of control.

Fitzgerald moved in with her aunt. She embraced her rebellious teenage years and skipped school. Eventually, this landed her in a reformation school. By 1934, she was deemed homeless. As the weight of an unforgiving world crumbled around a young girl, she forever clung to her long-lived aspirations to become a singer.

The Apollo Theater in Harlem was hosting an amateur singing contest. Various prospects filtered in to win the first-place prize of $25. Little did she know that when she entered the contest, she stepped into the threshold of what would be her future.

As fortune often has it, Fitzgerald met prominent members of musical history such as Chuck Webb, Benny Goodman, Louis Jordan, and the group the Ink Spots.

Though she sang of times of wine and the beautiful blues, her life was riddled by the love and losses of romance. After two marriages and two divorces, she was familiar with both the bright and dark sides of holy matrimony.

In a career that spanned from the early 30’s to the 80’s, Fitzgerald earned her fabled nicknames. She worked with musical figures like Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Count Basie and Cole Porter who only shined the gold of her gilded figure.

At the same time, she was plagued with her self-inflicted insecurities.

Due to criticism of her weight and her health, Fitzgerald was often conflicted by her public image. What she wasn’t able to comprehend is that none of her personal faults influenced how most of the musical world saw her.

Though every musician has gone through their own form of criticism, Ella was one of her harshest critics. According to the New York Times, she was quoted saying, “I thought my singing was pretty much hollering but [Chuck] Webb didn’t.”

Influencing musical icons such as Beyonce, Adele, and Michael Buble, it was her voice that convinced people that true love and happiness can exist in this uncertain world.

She received the National Medal of Arts in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan, as well as the Commander of Arts and Letters award and numerous honorary doctorates from Yale and Dartmouth.

On June 15, 1996, a prominent voice of jazz was silenced.

Even in death her influence on music and life must not be forgotten.

That is the key with most music shops nowadays. In order to make sure that the musical voices of the past never fade to the turning times, the public has shops such as Guestroom Records.

This record shop on the corner of Western and 36th houses many artists but among the classics of the section labeled “Jazz/Blues”, Ella sits prominently.

Aaron Walton, one of the cashiers at Guestroom records, is typically selling rock and alternative indie music to the public but records such as Fitzgerald always seem to make a comeback.

“There’s a fair amount of Ella Fitzgerald and artists like her being sold every week,” Walton said. “Probably a few a week. The age demographic is typically not what I expect when they come up with the record. Anywhere from mid- 20’s to 40’s; that’s where her music can be found.”

Ella’s timeless songs of romances lost and summertime in Europe are sounds of a generation being lost to time but never lost to our hearts.

Fitzgerald, through her hardships, turmoils and successes, inspires us to keep moving. The voices of the past will forever echo through her music and allow for any and all to become one with her.

To quote the Queen of Jazz herself, “Just don’t give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don’t think you can go wrong.”

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