Ella fitzgerald, "queen of jazz"

Important dates

  • April 25, 1917: birth of Ella Fitzgerald in Newport News, Virginia
  • 1932: Her mother passes away
  • November 21, 1934: She gets discovered during a performance at Apollo Theater
  • 1935: She joins Chick Webb’s orchestra
  • 1939: Webb passes away, leading to the renaming of the band to “Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Orchestra”
  • 1942: “Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Orchestra” ends, Ella becomes the lead singer of The Three Keys
  • 1945: Fitzgerald’s recording called “Flying Home” becomes one of the top hits of the 1940s
  • 1955: Her agent creates Vevve Records 
  • 1995: Ella Fitzgerald officially reitres
  • June 15, 1996: Death of Ella Fitzgerald

How a woman overcame personal and societal obstacles to become a jazz icon

Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born on April 25, 1917,  in Newport News, Virginia. Her parents were William Fitzgerald and Temperance “Tempie” Henry. Her parents were unmarried, but lived together for two years after Ella’s birth. In the early 1920s, she moved to a poor Italian area in Yonkers, Westchester County, New York, along with her mother and her mother’s new partner, Joseph da Silva. Ella was an outstanding student from an early age who gained a passion for dancing in third grade. She would dance for her class at lunch and greatly admired Earl Snakehips Tucker. Her passion for jazz was raised  when she accessed jazz recordings by Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, and The Bostwell Sisters.

In 1932, her life took an incredibly unfortunate turn. Her mother died in a car accident. She then moved to Harlem, New York, with her aunt, where she began to struggle. She began to skip school and her grades plummeted. She also worked as a lookout for a brothel and mafia. When the custodies caught her, she was sent to the Colored Orphan Asylum in Riverdale in the Bronx.

Fitzgerald strongly survived, both financially and emotionally, by singing on the streets of Harlem. She received her first major break on November 21, 1934, when she was discovered in a show called Amateur Heights at Harlem’s Apollo theater. Singing the song “Judy,” she won the first prize, which gave her the opportunity to perform at Apollo theater for a week, but largely due to her disheveled appearance, the theater did not grant her that part of her prize.

Fitzgerald was considered shy and reserved when she was off of the stage, but she craved and embraced the spotlight when singing in front of an audience.

“Once up there, I felt the acceptance and love from my audience,” Ella said. “I knew I wanted to sing before people the rest of my life.”

As she continued to work in music, her star began to rise.  In 1935 joined Chick Webb’s orchestra, where she recorded several hit songs, but the song that absolutely exploded, a song she co-wrote, was “A-Ticket, A-tasket,” which became one of the highest-selling songs of the 1930s.

In 1939, Webb died from spinal tuberculosis, which led to the renaming of the band to  “Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Orchestra. The band created over 150 sounds, and ultimately ended in 1942 due to chemistry problems between people in the band as well as financial concerns.

After the ending of that band, Fitzgerald became the lead singer of Three Keys. During this time, she established herself as one of the biggest international superstars in the music industry. Jazz was changing as it was transitioning toward a bebop style, and she adapted and thrived. She worked with multiple stars, including Bill Kenny, Louis Jordan, and the Ink Spots.

Her 1945 recording of “Flying Home” became considered one of the most influential recordings of the 1940s. She had appearances as a performer on “The Bing Crosby Show,” (her childhood idol), “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and “The Frank Sinatra Show.”

As music continued to adapt, so did she. In 1955, Norman Granz’s (Fitzgerald’s agent) created Vevva records. This development led to the expansion of types of music she would perform beyond be-pop, and that kept her star rising. She would also do ballads, show tunes, pop music, rock and roll, and more. 

“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 someplace and sing bop….I realized then that there was more to music than bop.” 


While elevating into an international superstar, she faced a strong amount of racial discrimination. On a tour in Dallas, Ella was arrested in her dressing room, along with Dizzy Gillespie, because of Granz’s civil rights support. Ella had fellow celebrity supporters who helped her land and maintain the opportunities she deserved, notably Marilyn Monroe.

There was another incident that occurred that led to her missing multiple concerts in Sydney, Australia. In a Pan-American Airlines flight from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Sydney, Ella, Granz, and John Lewis, her assistant, were ordered to leave the aircraft without access to their luggage for racially motivated purposes. They filed a lawsuit against Pan-Am for the case and won the case.


For the rest of Ella Fitzgerald’s decorated career, which lasted until 1995, she consistently performed multiple shows a day, often in multiple cities.  In 1993, she got both of her legs amputated from diabetes, and still performed for another two years. Her longevity and ability to play through health struggles as a performer is an admiring part of her legacy. On June 15, 1996, she passed away in her Beverly Hills home due to a stroke.

Ella Fitzgerald had one of the most dynamic and decorated careers ever in the music industry. She created over 100 albums of music in multiple genres, she won grammy awards, and earned the lifetime achievement awards by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Her never-ending passion and persistence kept her performing until the last year of her life, despite eroding health. Her success in the industry despite the childhood, racial, and gender obstacles thrown at her made her an excellent role model for women and minorities. She exemplified the possibilities that can be presented for everyone, regardless of background, who is willing to continue pushing forward.  “It isn’t where you’re from. It’s where you’re going that counts.”