SHE HAD MANY names but was recognizable by just one. Because she sang it all, her first name said it all. She was, above all, for so long and so well, embodied and embraced by one word:
“No moon was higher, no ocean deeper, than when Ella Fitzgerald measured them,” wrote former Washington Post pop music critic Richard Harrington.
“She was in that magical place where you’re in the vanguard, where everything is super-alive, but still incredibly classy, almost stately,” says current Post pop music critic Chris Richards.
“A girlish glisten . . . the stuff of joy,” said the late jazz critic Martin Williams.
“I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them,” said the great Ira Gershwin.
“Ella climbed the mountain and then she became the mountain and the people of the world came to the foot of the mountain and paid homage to her. I was just fortunate enough to be behind the mountain,” said her longtime bassist Keter Betts.
Ella interpreted and defined the American songbook, and so became “the First Lady of Song.” Ella became an ambassador of that uniquely American art form, and so became “the Queen of Jazz.” And Ella could sing it and swing it with rhythm beyond the beat, and so with her timeless talent became “Lady Time.”
In the very first review of her work, in 1935, Metronome’s George T. Simon forecast that “Miss Fitzgerald should go places.” Ultimately, of course, it was Ms. Fitzgerald -- Ella -- who took us places.
Delivered to us from Newport News, Va., and discovered at Harlem’s Apollo Theater as a soon-orphaned teenager, and developed on the big-band stand, Ella was our ultimate female jazz singer and then our supreme female Singer singer.
“All I wanted to do, after I found out people liked me, was to sing,” Ella once told The Post. “And I wanted that love. That was me giving you something and you giving me something in return.
“From here,” said Ella, pointing to her heart.
After her million-selling novelty single “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” in 1938, Ella — at age 21 — rose as strong and steady as her three-octave-plus range, singing for Chick Webb and then fronting his band when he died; recording for decades at Decca before she flew even higher by leaving, becoming the lady who helped launch a label with Verve. She systematically took on the American songbook in the ‘50s and ‘60s, from Cole Porter to Gershwin — through Mercer to Kern, Arlen to Berlin, to Rodgers and Hart — and each move seemed as perfect as her pitch.
About this time, the great Duke Ellington composed “Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald” and captured the essential Ella with the titles of two of his movements: “All Heart” and “Beyond Category.”
Ella’s last hit (a “Can’t Buy Me Love” cover) was in the ‘60s, and a decade later, she became best known to a new generation as the voice of Memorex TV commercials that broke a thousand wine glasses.
Now we listen to her timeless talent and consistently glistening and youthful tone and wonder: Is it live, or is it memories?
Inspired by Dizzy Gillespie, she lifted scat from novelty to nobility. Her voice was an instrument to rival any horn. And she continued to radiate and resonate with that embraceable joy.
In her next, last decades, Ella would receive the National Medal of Arts and the Kennedy Center Honor. Even awards (the Society of Singer’s “the Ella”) and buildings (the University of Maryland’s performing-arts center) would be named for her.
After six decades and countless shows and more than 200 albums, her last release — 1990’s collaborative “All That Jazz” — would garner her a 13th Grammy. The next year, at Carnegie Hall, she gave her final performance.
In 1996, Ms. Fitzgerald — who had suffered the serious effects of diabetes in her later years — died at age 79.
Today, Google celebrates what would have been her 96th birthday with a vibrant and richly tinted home-page Doodle of the singer in kinetic performance.
“That was me giving you something and you giving me something in return. From here.”
Thank you, Ella.