Ella Fitzgerald was the most influential jazz singer of her time. Her career spanned so many decades and so many movements, from the big-band era of the '30's, to bebop in the '40's, into the golden age of the standard in the '50's (Schoemer 1). She was a master of technique, able to leap octaves, split tones, reinvent melodies, and dance all over complex rhythms. She never sang an unsophisticated note, and she always left a song better off than she had found it (Schoemer 2). This African American female vocalist entertained people all over the world with her legendary voice, and had so much talent that she also became known as the "First Lady of Song" (McGill 1). Prior to the era of Ella Fitzgerald, jazz did not have a diverse sound of music.
It only consisted of swing, ragtime, and big-band music when it originated in 1895, and it remained that way through the mid-1930's (Alexander 1). Because it was known that jazz was composed mostly by African-American males, and the population was dominated by whites, the interest in jazz wasn't immense (Alexander 1). Fitzgerald was discovered in the mid-1930's, also known as the swing era, when she snuck into the dressing room of Chick Webb, a famous drummer at the time, and sang for him (Kilment 39). She toured with his band for the start of her successful career. She was the band's main attraction at barely twenty-one years of age, making her one of the youngest band leaders in the country (Kilment 60). She was also the youngest person to ever join the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers in 1940 (Kilment 60).
Fitzgerald began with her first appearance in a small band known as the Four Keys at the Aquarium restaurant in New York City's Time Square (Kilment 63). Her audiences loved to hear her voice. Her reputation grew as she made more and more appearances at different places. She sang swing when she first started out, but after some time she could hear how jazz was changing and she wanted to be a part of its growth, regardless of what her fans might think (Kilment 64). Ella Fitzgerald was warned that the country was not ready for some of the music she was beginning to portray. Nevertheless, she went along with her first musical experiment in the mid-1940's.
She sang Western Indian folk music, featuring lyrics that were half-spoken and half-sung, known as Calypso (Kilment 63). Of course, because her singing had been so convincing before, people listened to the new and different sounding melodies. Thus, more innovative music began to be exposed by Fitzgerald. Bebop was almost the complete opposite of swing. It was usually played by small groups instead of big bands and was performed at jam sessions in small clubs instead of large ballrooms.
It was improvised rather than orchestrated and featured solos over ensemble playing. Most of all, bebop was for listening rather than dancing (Kilment 64). Because people were into the beat of music so they could dance to it, bebop was not likely to be enjoyed by the common man of the time era. By translating the sounds of bebop into vocal terms, Ella Fitzgerald helped make a difficult form of music easier to grasp (Kilment 69). She was responsible for bringing bebop to an audience that otherwise might not have listened to it. After she became notorious for singing bebop she began to put her versions of it on records and they all immediately became hits (Kilment 66).
In the late 1940's Fitzgerald pioneered the improvisational "scat" style of bebop (Ella 1). A vocalist "scats" when he or she abandons the lyrics of a song and uses nonsense syllables to carry the rhythm or express emotion just like an instrument does (Williams 65). She adapted her voice to the new jazz form by using this technique. She began to tour with a very famous jazz composer known as Dizzy Gillespie for six weeks in 1947.
It was not until then that she discovered the heights to which her scatting could soar (Kilment 66). She caught on right away to the tones that made her singing sound like bebop. By definition, a jazz performance is the spontaneous expression of an artist's emotion at the time of performance, not a rehearsed song, read from sheet music, devoid of creativity; and that is exactly what Ella Fitzgerald achieved in front of her audiences (Kilment 67). It was new and unexpected that her scat singing delighted not only her, but her listeners as well.
Scat may read like nonsense on the page, but Fitzgerald translated innocent sounds into pure exuberance; the effect was as if simple words could not contain her (Schoemer 2). After leaving the Chick Webb band, Fitzgerald began working for the Verve Label under her new manager, Norman Granz, who helped her realize her abilities through the Songbook Series (McGill 2). This collection of recordings was the most extensive compilation of jazz music ever created (McGill 2). Her decision to work with Granz ultimately turned out to be one of the most important choices of her career; he helped to make her popular around the world (Kilment 71). In the mid-1950's a turning point came about for almost all American vernacular singers: they ceased to croon and began to sing with a fuller voice (Williams 42).
At this time Fitzgerald was singing better than ever, and her stature as an influential artist was soon confirmed (Kilment 78). She had made classic recordings that widened her vocal range and won her a mainstream audience. All Fitzgerald ever wanted to do was expand her talent in the music industry, even if everyone already believed she was one of the best singers of all time. Fitzgerald's determination had served her well, as it had in the days of swing and bebop, and she could point to the second half of the 1950's as a period of great fulfillment (Kilment 93). In 1956 she began recording classic American songs such as Broadway show tunes (Kilment 83). Of course, the first album was an immediate success.
The Cole Porter Songbook put Fitzgerald at the top of the charts and became the eleventh best-selling album of the year (Kilment 85). American popular music took a dramatic turn in the early 1960's, as both soul music and rock and roll began to dominate the record charts, pushing jazz and show tunes into the background (Kilment 95). Although the dawn of soul and rock affected the extent her recording career could have reached, her fame went undiminished (Kilment 95). Ella Fitzgerald loved singing so much she never really wanted to stop. Long after she had confirmed her stature as one of the greatest jazz singers of the century, she was still working like an up-and-comer (Schoemer 1). Though Ella Fitzgerald's scat may have been her signature, her voice possessed a heavenly perfection that could make any poignant ballad or silly ditty sound equally sublime (Schoemer 1).
She set the gold standard in music, recording more than 2,000 songs and selling more than 40 million albums (Ella 1). After Fitzgerald showed off her magnificent, incomparable talents not only to America, but to the world, the jazz industry was changed forever. It now consisted of swing, bebop, scat, big-band, show tunes, and even more; it had become one of the most popular types of music during the time era. Without the efforts of Ella Fitzgerald, jazz music may not have been remembered the way it is today. She has been considered one of the best vocal artists in American history due to her influence on the jazz industry.