Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald

“Just don’t give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don’t think you can go wrong.” - Ella Fitzgerald


Illustrated by Jessica Nam


Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born on April 25, 1917 in Newport News, Virginia. Her father left when she was two years old and her mother loved to sing and would bring home jazz records for her daughter. Fitzgerald was a happy child with a passion for dance. She was inspired by her favorite performer Earl “Snakehips” Tucker and would perform his signature dances for her schoolmates. Ella and her family attended a Methodist Church where she was given her first taste of formal music making.

When she was 15, Fitzgerald’s mother died from injuries sustained in a car accident. This was the start of a troubling period in Fitzgerald’s life. She was left in the care of her stepfather, but the two were always at odds and Ella eventually ran away from home. She lived with an aunt for a while in Harlem but got caught up with a bad crowd. She was eventually placed in an orphanage for teens but ran away from there as well, finding herself homeless. 

Performing became a means of survival while living on the streets of Harlem. She participated in amateur nights around the city and, at the age of 17, she broke into the scene at the Apollo Theater. She entered an amateur competition there, intending to dance, but chickened out after watching a duo perform in matching sequined dresses and decided to sing instead. At first the audience booed her, unimpressed by her unkempt appearance and men's boots but, when she began to sing, her voice silenced the crowd, and she took home first prize, $25.

The experience at the Apollo led to a week of performing at the Harlem Opera House where she caught the eye of Chick Webb, who recruited her to play with his band. She traveled the country with Webb’s band, had regular performances at Harlem's "Savoy" club and recorded several hit songs.

After Webb’s death in 1939, the band was renamed "Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Orchestra". Swing music, however, was on the decline and big bands were becoming passé. As jazz evolved, so did Fitzgerald's vocal style, and she soon went solo. Influenced by bebop, and performing with Dizzy Gillespie, she began experimenting with scat singing, a style which eventually became part of her performance repertoire. She was wildly successful in the 50s and 60s, earning her moniker "First Lady of Song" and her style became the standard for jazz singing. 

 “I stole everything I ever heard, but mostly I stole from the horns”

Fitzgerald won two Grammy's at their first ever awards ceremony. She spent many years collaborating with all the greats including Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington. Her successful touring lasted well into the 70s, but in the 80s she suffered health issues, and many complications stemming from diabetes that left her blind and with two amputated legs. Her last public performance was at New York's Carnegie Hall in 1991 and, five years later, Ella Fitzgerald passed away at her home in Beverly Hills.

She was astonishingly prolific, honored and successful in her career, and acknowledged by all her peers as one of the true greats. "Queen of Jazz", "Lady Ella" will forever be the "First Lady of Song."



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The Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation keeps music alive in our schools by providing durable, high-quality musical instruments to deserving, under-funded music programs nationwide. By increasing the school’s inventory of quality, playable instruments, music teachers are given the tools they need to deliver a quality music education to students who want to learn, re-energize their program, attract new students and instill a sense of pride and worth for the students and the entire school. In collaboration with committed school districts, the Foundation’s investments are strategically placed as part of a K–12 district-wide plan to achieve positive and lasting results. 

Marsha P. Johnson

Marsha P. Johnson

Septima Clark

Septima Clark