The documentary opens with Ella Fitzgerald singing a classic called “Fly Me To the Moon.” Ella’s life’s work appears to be a big part of the fabric of the American landscape. Her ability to improvise, access a vast catalog of songs, and a strong sense of musicality is what made her one of the most famous vocalists of all time. Scatting was a skill that she acquired as a more seasoned vocalist, setting her further apart from any other female vocalist of her time.
The Great Depression
The great migration changed Ella’s life. Her family moved from Virginia to New York (Yonkers). Yonkers was a city in Westchester, close enough to take the train or bus to Harlem in minutes. By 1932, many African-Americans were homeless and jobless. Ella had a tragedy that changed the trajectory of her life. Her mother died when she was 13 years old. Her aunt took Ella in, but Ella ran away. She was picked up by the police forced to go to a reformatory school. Ella returned to Harlem and was homeless until a band leader called Chick Webb reluctantly accepted the young female teenager into the all-male band. Webb groomed her and took her under his wing.
As a young girl, Ella loved to dance and to sing and is determined. In November 1934, dancer Norma Miller recalled “first hearing a skinny street kid singing. It was amateur night at the Apollo.” Narrator Sharon D. Clarke states that “the girl has never sang in public. She’s shaking, and her dress is dirty. There are rowdy teenagers in the audience, and Ella gets booed.” The audience does not recognize her, but once she opens her mouth to sing, the crowd goes silent and is amazed by the alluring voice of this 16-year-old songstress.
The Age of Jazz
Ella’s song, “A Tisket A Tasket,” became a classic. And although Ella didn’t look like most of the women in the entertainment industry at the time, her voice seemed to transcend barriers. Her childlike demeanor and ability to adapt and improvise made her such a unique treasure.
Ella changed with the times. In 1941, the Chick Webb band broke up due to the draft and the death of Webb 2 years earlier. Ella had to rebrand herself and adapt to the new sound, which was “Bop.” “She had to relocate herself on the new landscape, “ says writer Margo Jefferson. She toured with musician Ray Brown, and they got married and had a son. In the 1940s where she was able to perfect her scatting by including folk songs, classical, jazz, and nursery rhyme. As her career progressed, her marriage to Ray Brown did not last.
Later in the late 1940s, Ella teamed up with Norman Ganz, responsible for orchestrating her voice into a more sophisticated sound (with the Jazz at the Philharmonic). Ganz also opposed racism and fought for his black musicians to be treated with respect.
When she was on the road in the 1960s, Ella improvised the song “Mack the Knife.” This Berlin Live recorded concert sold a million copies and won her two Grammys. Ella is said to have been influenced by many early jazz musicians. Eventually, she collaborated with many artists like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, George, and Ira Gershwin, and many more. Although I would have loved to see more interviews of her contemporaries, Reggie Woodhead and Leslie Nadelson have highlighted Ella Fitzgerald’s life and accomplishments, proving that her legendary voice has stood the test of time.
You can catch it at the Gene Siskel Film Center until 7/31
Contributing Writer, Okema Gunn is a filmmaker and educator. Find her on social media @7gunnmedia.