Are great artists born, or are they made? Probably a little of both, but I suspect that deep down, even if we don’t like to admit it, we know it’s probably a little more the former. We can become skilled at most anything with dedication and hard work. Talent is another matter—a mysterious combination of qualities we know when we hear but can’t always define. Ella Fitzgerald had it when she first stepped on stage on amateur night at Harlem’s Apollo Theater as a teenager, intending to do a tap dance routine.
She’d only done the performance on a dare, had no formal training outside of singing in church, her bedroom, and the Harlem streets, and she only chose to sing that night because the act before her did a tap dance and stole her thunder.
She blew the audience away—a tough New York crowd not known for being forgiving—and rendered even the boisterous teenagers in the balcony speechless. “Three encores later,” she wrote, “the $25 prize was mine.” Fitzgerald’s golden, three-octave voice, impeccable timing, and improvisational brilliance are not exactly the kinds of things that can be taught.
She didn’t look the part of the typical female jazz singer, at least according to popular perception, writes Holly Gleason at NPR. “A large woman who’d grown up rough,” including time spent in a New York State reformatory, she was rejected by bandleaders even after that first, revelatory performance, and the press frequently referred to her in terms that disparaged her appearance. “Fitzgerald recognized she didn’t possess Billie Holiday’s torchy allure,” Holly Gleason writes, or “Eartha Kitt’s feral sensuality or Carmen McRae’s sex appeal. But that would not stop the woman who took her vocal cues from the horns, as well as from jazz singer Connee Boswell.”
It didn’t stop her from winning a Grammy in the Grammy’s first year, or having a record label, Verve, founded just to put out her music. Ella’s range and pitch-perfect ear meant she could imitate not only the horn section or her favorite singer Boswell but just about anyone else as well, from popular jazz singer Rose Murphy, with her high, cartoonish voice, “chee chee” affectations, and “brrrp” telephone sound effects, to the low, gravelly rasp of Fitzgerald’s longtime duet partner Louis Armstrong. See her do exactly that in the clip at the top, moving effortlessly in “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby” from her own voice, to Murphy’s, to Armstrong’s in the space of just a few minutes.
Whatever obstacles Fitzgerald faced, her voice seemed to soar above it all. In becoming a global jazz star and “The First Lady of Song,” says jazz writer Will Friedwald, “she showed people that this is music Americans should be proud of.”
via Ben Phillips