28 Days of Black Excellence

An ongoing series for the entire 28 days of Black History Month that showcases the inventions, the people, and culture that makes people of the African diaspora so excellent.

I live in Harlem. Not sure if I brag about that enough. But I can’t help it really. This place is the home, the heart, of one of the greatest movements in American history, The Harlem Renaissance, then called “New Negro Movement”. How lucky am I, then, to live one block away from the world-famous Apollo Theater? These are the stomping grounds of many greats. You’ve heard mention of icons such as Ellington, Baldwin, and Louis Armstrong, have you not? These people have all cemented their legacies right here. And so did Ms. Ella Fitzgerald, one of the most talented artists to ever live. Even now, her voice sends shivers down my spine, 100 years after her birth.

Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born on April 25, 1917 in Newport News, Virginia. In the early twenties, her unmarried parents split, after her father just got up and left, and she moved up to Yonkers, New York with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, Joseph Da Silva.

After the move, Fitzgerald’s life would be hectic, more so than in Virginia. In the early days of her childhood, she was a star pupil, but her life would take on an entirely different course in later adolescence. Because of the introduction of her half-sister in 1923, Fitzgerald had to take on jobs, even as a young child. She worked as a “runner” for bookies. And as a lookout for a brothel.

In 1932, her mother died in a car crash. And this began the start of her bad behavior.

One refuge for the young Fitzgerald was to sing. Her love for music started at her church, listening to the choir, and later listening to Connee Boswell. Of her idol, Boswell, she once said, “My mother brought home one of her records, and I fell in love with it….I tried so hard to sound just like her.”

Her step-father was now her full-time caregiver. When she was 15, the rebellious teenager began ditching school and was soon sent to Harlem to live with an aunt. The decision that would ultimately save her life, the love of her craft, and the career of a million lifetimes.

In the ‘30s and ‘40s, most band singers were blond, slim, and good-looking. This didn’t help the confidence of the chubby, light-skinned lady with the big voice. She had always been self-conscious, even, some might say, painfully shy.

Seventeen and living on the streets, Fitzgerald decided to try her hand at singing in front of a wide audience. Apollo Theater has some of the fiercest critics in the world. And boos during Amateur Night at the Apollo can mean the death of any early career, with getting “danced” offstage the final bit of insult to your injury. Much like getting the “cane” or the “curtains” when you’re just a terrible performer, getting “danced” off is another form of teaching not to try that again. That’s what makes her decision to perform there, as painfully shy as she was, such a thing to be immortalized in legend.

ella fitzgerald, black singers, black jazz singers, black excellence, black history, black history monthHer performance was a bit nerve-wracking for her, because she had originally intended to perform a song and dance; however, local Harlem celebrities, the Edward Sisters, made her change her mind—their dance routine was perfect and won the crowd. Unfortunately for them, her performance won the entire night.

After years of performing at small venues and doing guest spots on TV and radio, she finally got her own band, Ella and Her Famous Orchestra.

Fitzgerald had perfect pitch, and bands would tune their instruments to the sound of her voice. Hers is the kind of voice you could listen to all day, and even fall asleep to. Trust me, I’ve done it. That sultry and sweet, bold yet gentle, horn-like coo that comes out of her mouth…it’s like a caress of sound inside your ears. The way she scats, it’s as if the skill was made specifically for her, and makes it seem so easy, as if even the audience could too if they tried. She came to be known as the “First Lady of Song,” and that’s such a fitting moniker for someone who can do this.

Fitzgerald became the first African American woman to win a Grammy in 1958, when she was 41. One for Best Jazz Performance, Soloist for “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook” and one for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook.”

Her standards “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” “Cheek to Cheek,” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing,” are some of the recognizable songs of all time.

In her lifetime, she performed with the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, and many more. Most who performed with her called her the most talented artist they’d ever worked with.

“The First Lady of Song” passed away in 1996, at the age of 79. She’d been suffering from complications from diabetes.

One of her most cherished phrases, is the one that still sticks with me, a true testament to the power of music, especially when it comes from her. “The only thing better than singing is more singing.” This woman, one of the brightest stars in the world of black excellence, will never die. Her voice is everlasting. Sing Lady, Sing.

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Alex Miller is a freelance writer living in Harlem. His work has appeared in Forbes, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other places.