In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.
Ella Fitzgerald, “the First Lady of Song,” the “Queen of Jazz,” or simply “Lady Ella,” got her first big break at an Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater, a place where many stars first got their start (Diana Ross & the Supremes, Aretha Franklin, and Lauryn Hill, to name but a few). She went on to have an almost 30-year-long career, recording over 200 albums and collecting many awards, including 14 Grammys (making her the woman with the fifth most overall), the National Medal of Arts (given by President Ronald Reagan), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (given by President George H. W. Bush), and internationally, admission into France’s Order of Arts and Letters. She even got her own stamp and was featured in the Google Doodle.
Fitzgerald was a trailblazer. She was the first African American woman to win a Grammy for Best Vocal Performance and Best Jazz Performance and the first woman to be nominated for Album of the Year during the first-ever Grammy awards in 1959. Eight years later, she became the first woman to win the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
She collaborated with many others musicians throughout the course of her career (as we’ll see below), often making old songs her own. Despite her popularity and her status as a major jazz influencer, Fitzgerald still faced discrimination (she once was arrested backstage at her own show). Fitzgerald had powerful advocates though, including Marilyn Monroe, a big fan who used her popularity to advocate for Fitzgerald to perform at a popular club, Mocambo.
Today, on the anniversary of her death and in her memory, we listen to covers of some of her originals (for the cover sticklers) and covers of her own covers (although arguably she popularized these tunes). Before reading on, I encourage you to listen to Fitzgerald’s response to Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, a song called “It’s Up to Me and You.” Her message, “let’s not hate and let’s not wait,” rings true today.