African American Studies Ella Fitzgerald
Melanie R. Hill
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0073


Sam Waymon, the brother of Nina Simone, once stated, “Music can save you by giving [you] a sense of vision, tolerance, [and] harmony; it can give you . . . a fullness.” Waymon’s words reflect heavily in the life of Ella Fitzgerald. With her life beginning in poverty, music saved Ella. Writers and musicians alike commemorate Ella Fitzgerald in 2019 with books and albums dedicated in her honor. In her recent album devoted wholly to the swinging sounds of the Queen of Jazz, renowned jazz violinist Regina Carter pays musical homage and describes Ella Fitzgerald’s voice as a “voice that was able to bring people together.” Carter continues, “Hearing [Fitzgerald’s] voice was love.” With the pluck of the string, harmonic arpeggios, and instrumental technique that mimic the voice of Ella Fitzgerald, Regina Carter released her timely album Ella: Accentuate the Positive (cited under Accentuating Sound). The year 2017 marks the 100th birthday of famed jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, also noted as Mama Jazz, the Memorex Lady, and the First Lady of Song. While remembering the vocal ingenuity of Fitzgerald, variance, timbre, tone, texture, cadence, improvisation, and symphonic melody are all words that crown the First Lady of Song. Born in 1917 in Newport News, Virginia, Fitzgerald began singing in church when she and her mother moved from Virginia to New York. As an adolescent in 1934, she entered the Apollo Theater’s weekly amateur night competition. Inundated with trepidation at the audience’s reaction to known dancers, the Edwards Sisters, who competed before her, Fitzgerald decided to sing instead of dance. Much to her surprise after singing, Fitzgerald won the competition that night. In 1936, Fitzgerald produced her first recording with Decca Records. Known for her scat singing style and tuning her voice to sound like an instrument, Fitzgerald famously collaborated with jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter, and other musicians. During the civil rights movement and years after, Ella’s appearances on The Nat King Cole Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Frank Sinatra Show, and other televised productions conveyed her ability to traverse racial barriers and disseminate her gift of song to all audiences, nationally and internationally. Fitzgerald has won thirteen Grammy Awards and sold forty million albums. This article first examines the theoretical frameworks of history and memory through which scholars examine African American expressive culture. It is through the accentuation of sound in text and in the intersections of music and literature that the gems of black culture and consciousness are found. The citations cover a breadth of material from jazz and literary theory, focusing on what Fitzgerald brings to the community, nation, and the world.

General Overviews

By examining music within three investigative approaches—history, memory, and theory—it’s imperative to ask how musicology can be read as a text. Music can inevitably be heard, but to approach this discipline historiographically, it is important and impactful to situate music within a scholarly framework where the objective (history), the subjective (memory), and the theoretical formulate a coherent understanding of music’s signifying power in general and the historical framework of black music in particular. How does music, specifically black music, “inform” history? This section aims to give readers a historic sense of performance in black expressive culture. To understand Ella Fitzgerald as jazz woman is to first understand readings of history and memory in black performance scholarship. Caponi 1999 reads the meaning of performance genius in black expressive culture; Fabre and O’Meally 1994 provides an extensive range of essays from scholars that highlight how both history and memory are read in black music performance. While Floyd 1996 also writes about music’s cultural relevance, Gitler 1985 and Guralnick 2012 delve into the history of specific genres of music. Kernfield 2003 provides a comprehensive history of jazz musicians, while Ramsey 2003 and Ward 2012 read music as a social text along the intersections of race and gender. Rustin 2008 engages gender in jazz studies, and the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll is an additional source, providing an overview of blues and jazz musicians, particularly Ella Fitzgerald. Small 1998 provides a critical examination of music as a mobile work. Confirming theories found in music and performance studies, these citations provide a theoretical overview of the context of the historical impact of black music.

  • Caponi, Gena Dagel. Signifyin(g), Sanctifyin’, & Slam Dunking: A Reader in African American Expressive Culture. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.

    Explaining the rhetorical strategy of signifyin(g) in the African American community, Caponi presents Ella Fitzgerald diachronically and synchronically, in performance and in song.

  • Fabre, Geneviéve, and Robert O’Meally. History and Memory in African-American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

    An arrangement of contributing essays from scholars Hazel Carby, Nellie McKay, and others who detail the importance of history and memory in black expressive culture. This text is useful for understanding the critical frameworks through which African American expressive culture is analyzed.

  • Floyd, Samuel A., Jr. The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History from Africa to the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

    Resource that is not solely an overview of the history of music; Floyd fleshes out the ways in which he interprets music and its specific relation to black culture.

  • Gitler, Ira. Swing to Bop: An Oral History of the Tradition in Jazz in the 1940s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

    Marking swing music as “black expression” in performance, this source traces the history of jazz music from swing to bebop and its characterization in modern jazz. Valuable source with interviews from more than fifty historic jazz musicians over the course of ten years.

  • Guralnick, Peter. Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm & Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom. New York: Little, Brown, 2012.

    Examining artists from Sam Cooke and Ray Charles to Al Green and Aretha Franklin, coupled with interviews with more than a hundred individuals from Philadelphia, Tennessee, New York, and Los Angeles, this source gives an overarching analysis of Southern soul music and its intricate distinctions from rhythm and blues.

  • Kernfield, Berry, ed. The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    Source citing an expansive history of jazz music performances and musicians from Bessie Smith and Eubie Blake to Ray Charles.

  • Ramsey, Guthrie P., Jr. Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip-Hop. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

    Through historical, mimetic, and theoretical lenses, this work effectively analyzes music as a dynamic social text coupled with art forms from gospel, blues, and jazz to hip-hop. Race Music defines the implications of music’s culture and meanings of performance in the 20th century through an ethnomusicological perspective.

  • The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll. New York: Touchstone, 2001.

    An extensive source that covers a variety of musicians from Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn in the blues and jazz to musicians in the genres of pop and rock.

  • Rustin, Nichole T. Big Ears: Listening for Gender in Jazz Studies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.

    Current work that engages the role of gender in jazz studies.

  • Small, Christopher. Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1998.

    This work provides a detailed engagement on the concept of music as a verb. Music as a mobile work is the critical idea Small examines in this text. “What does it mean when this performance (of this work) takes place at this time, in this place, with these participants?” (p. 10). This is a question that is often asked in musicology and performance studies theory, and Small’s analysis travels to the depths of how scholars classify production and performance in particular spaces and historical contexts.

  • Ward, Brian. Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm & Blues, Black Consciousness, and Race Relations. London: UCL Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203214459

    Analyzes the history of black music along the intersections of race and gender. Helpful source in forming critical frameworks in which to analyze music in general, but also black music and its social significance in particular.

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