NO SINGER covered so wide a range of jazz and popular music as did Ella Fitzgerald, who died over the weekend at 79. She rose to fame during the swing era, excelled at scat, was present at the birth of be-bop and recorded an amazing array of music from bossa nova and gospel to anthologies of American popular standards.
To the general public, these "songbooks" of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer are the best-known part of Ms. Fitzgerald's rich legacy. She had unsurpassed diction and vocal agility, qualities that were enhanced by lush or jazzy arrangements by the likes of Nelson Riddle.
As a child, Ms. Fitzgerald dreamed of being a dancer. But a first-place win in a 1934 amateur singing contest at Harlem's Apollo Theater got her started in the jazz circuit. Her break-through came four years later, when she recorded a version of an old children's rhyme, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," with the orchestra of Baltimore-born Chick Webb.
The early recognition of Ms. Fitzgerald as a pre-eminent jazz singer meant that she recorded with most of the genre's biggest stars, including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Yet for a performer constantly in the public eye, Ms. Fitzgerald was shy. It was her good luck to find associates who had her best artistic and business interests at heart, above all Norman Grantz, the Jazz at the Philharmonic FTC impresario who became her manager.
Until health problems slowed her down in the 1980s, Ms. Fitzgerald maintained a backbreaking schedule. She won countless music awards and several honorary degrees. Accepting such a doctorate from Yale, she said, "Not bad for someone who only studied music to get that half-credit in high school."
Bing Crosby once said, "Ella is the greatest." Right.