Change-maker in black history: Ella Fitzgerald

Dubbed “The First Lady of Jazz” and “The First Lady of Swing,” a chance performance at the Apollo Theater’s famed Amateur Night in 1934 set Ella Fitzgerald’s career in motion. Over the next seven decades, she worked with some of the most important artists in the music industry including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Frank Sinatra.

Ella is most celebrated for her unique ability for mimicking instrumental sounds which helped popularize the vocal improvisation of “scatting,” which became her signature technique.

So venerated was Ella for her vocal skills, that in 1961 she sang at President John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Gala at the National Grand Armory.

Although Ella was an international singing sensation, she faced a great deal of discrimination in her travels. Ella and members of her band sued Pan Am in 1954 after they were bumped from a flight to accommodate white patrons. And in 1955, she was arrested, along with Dizzy Gillespie and other fame musicians in an attempt by the Houston, Texas police to frame the musicians for drug possession. They were ultimately charged with witnessing and participating in a dice game.

An unlikely friendship was formed in the 1950s when Marilyn Monroe found out that Mocambo, a popular jet set night club in Hollywood, would not book Ella Fitzgerald as a performer because of segregation. Marilyn phoned the manager and told him that she would book a front row table every night Ella performed there, knowing that her presence would get a lot of reporters there and a lot of publicity for the club. Soon thereafter, Ella became the first African-American to perform at the club, and Marilyn kept her promise. (Ella also became the first black woman to perform at the Copacabana in 1957.)

Ella Fitzgerald recorded over 200 albums and around 2,000 songs in her lifetime, singing the works of some of the most popular composers such as Cole Porter, Gershwin and Irving Berlin. The legend won countless awards and accolades for her work, including numerous Grammy Awards, the Bing Crosby Lifetime Achievement award in 1967, Peabody Award for Outstanding Contributions to Music in America in 1983 and the National Medal of Arts in 1987. In 1992, President George Bush awarded Ella with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 1995, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Fitzgerald also had health issues throughout her career that would have ended the career of weaker souls, but Ella just kept going. In 1954, she was hospitalized with a node on her throat but was back in the studio recording less than six weeks later. In 1986, she underwent five-way heart bypass surgery after having a heart attack in August. Nevertheless, Ella continued to perform.

Ella is remembered for her lifelong tradition of supporting children’s charities. She even established the Ella Fitzgerald Child Care Center in Los Angeles in 1977.

Ella Fitzgerald died in 1996 at the age of 79, three years after her legs were amputated as a side effect of diabetes. She is immortalized as one of the most influential jazz artists of the 20th century.