Few artists in the history of American music embody the ethos of classicism as well as Ella Fitzgerald. A century after her birth on April 25, 1917, and more than 20 years after her death on June 15, 1996, Fitzgerald endures in the public consciousness as an exemplar of the lasting power of well-crafted songs sung with skill and ardor. In the same year that a Nobel Laureate in Literature, Bob Dylan, has drawn renewed attention to the artfulness of the American popular standards by singing three full albums of the material in his latest release, Triplicate, Fitzgerald stands as the exemplar of what Dylan is trying to become, a master who did it for decades with surpassing, almost superhuman ability.
Fitzgerald’s stature as a premier pop classicist is typically and accurately traced to the transformative series of “songbooks” of the works of 20th-century tunesmiths that Norman Granz, the head of Verve Records, had Fitzgerald record in the 1950s and early ’60s. By bringing together songs by the likes of Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Duke Ellington, Jerome Kern, and Harold Arlen in collections of recordings called songbooks, Granz simultaneously established the material as canon and redefined Fitzgerald, until then generally thought of one among many highly skilled pop vocalists, as a canonical figure. As Fitzgerald told the music writer John Rockwell in an interview 10 years before her death, “When Norman Granz and I began recording the ‘songbook’ series in the mid-’50s, it just seemed that more people began to like my singing.”
There was never much not to like in Fitzgerald’s work. She was blessed with an extraordinary range of nearly three octaves (more than that, if one counts the falsetto she employed so deftly that it blended imperceptibly with her mid-range). Her intonation was flawless, as if there were Auto-Tune in her blood. She could mix her tones with ease, purring seductively, as she would do until her final years, or adding a bit of grit when she wanted. Trained in her teens as singer for one of the hardest-swinging dance bands, Chick Webb and His Orchestra, she had impeccable time—indeed, her early nickname was the “First Lady of Swing”—and a supremely sophisticated harmonic sense, which she demonstrated in now renowned scat solos that rivaled the improvisations of bebop masters such as her friend Dizzy Gillespie.
It was through Webb that Fitzgerald learned to embrace an approach to music making that proves her to be, in fact, something more than a classicist. “He gave me the only advice I’ve ever needed,” Fitzgerald is reported to have said. “‘Honey,’ he told me, ‘in this business you’ve always got to get there the firstest with the mostest and the newest.’” In truth, during her long lifetime—from her first days with Chick Webb to her final concert at Radio City Music Hall in 1992—she was interested in the latest vogues in popular music and eager to experiment with new styles. She was, in life, as engaged with the new as she was driven by classicism.