By: S. Costa Franco
American Jazz in the mid-twentieth century
In the late 1800s, with events such as the 1893 stock market crash, and the World's Columbian Exposition, the fragility of the American economy, and the influence of colonization in its creation were issues that were repeatedly brought into question. This proceeded to inspire new musical movements in America such as the spread of Ragtime and Blues music, and these then inspired the popularization of Jazz. Essentially, the United States' complicated roots, replete with financial, social and political challenges and oppression, served as origins for much of the culture we consume today.
In the heart of the city of New Orleans, Louisiana, the genre of Jazz was born. This music was performed both in formal and public musical settings, as well as privately, in gatherings, dances, and an array of other events. Jazz would also transport itself in between the spectrums of folk and commerce. The social structure of New Orleans at this time, containing residents of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds, as well as rich influence from French, Spanish, African and Caribbean cultures, allowed for the new musical genre to be provided with a broad and active audience. Several central figures, Jelly Roll Morton, Buddy Bolden, and Joe "King" Oliver, arose. During the Great Migration of Black Southerners that completely modified the landscape of the urban Midwest and Northeast, Jazz was disseminated to multiple parts of the country, blossoming into the musical genre that is familiar in the present day.
Who was the 'Queen of Jazz'?
Born in Newport News, Virginia, on April 15th, 1917, Ella Jane Fitzgerald was soon to become the most popular female jazz singer in all of the United States, and this unmitigated fame would go on to last for more than a century.
It is said that it all began at New York City's Apollo Theater in 1934, when a young Ella dreamed to be a dancer, and intended to perform at an amateur contest on that very date. Caught in the clutches of panic, however, the performer opted for
singing a jazz piece inspired by jazz vocalist Connee Boswell instead, landing her first prize. Soon after this, Fitzgerald went on to join the Chick Webb Orchestra, making her first recording, "Love and Kisses" in 1935, and in 1938 releasing her first hit, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket". Webb became Fitzgerald's guardian after the death of her mother, and after the death of Webb himself, Ella led the band until its dismantling in 1942.
Here, was when Fitzgerald's solo career began, as she performed in cabarets and theatres, impressing everyone with her sweet and striking tone, clear and impressive vocal quality and range, and unique and ingenious technique. She mostly produced original songs, but rose to fame even further when notorious jazz impresario Norman Granz became her manager, and Ella then proceeded to create a series of songbooks, in which she performed interpretations of approximately 250 other pieces. She became known for her 'scat' singing, and ability to replicate nearly all instruments in a single orchestra.
Despite never ceasing to perform periodically, even after heart surgery, Fitzgerald experiences severe health problems throughout the 1970s, and complications arising from her condition of diabetes led to the amputation of both of her legs below the knees. Sadly, Ella Fitzgerald then passed away on June 15th, 1996 in Beverly Hills, California. Before this, nonetheless, she proceeded to receive 14 Grammy Awards, one of which was for "lifetime achievement", in addition ot a Kennedy Center Honor for Lifetime Achievement (1979), and the National Medal of Arts (1987). Her skill, talent, unique artistic quality and charisma, as the true "Lady of Song" or "Queen of Jazz" as she was often referred to, shall be remembered for lifetimes to come.
Intersectionality is considered a theoretical category and analytical framework, focused on demonstrating that there are multiple social factors that can influence an individual's life, and determine the difficulties that person may encounter. In particular, it explains how race, disability, nationality, sexual orientation, and gender identity all contribute to the level of oppression one may experience.
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw was the woman who created the concept of intersectionality. Crenshaw is an African American lawyer, philosopher, academic, feminist and civil rights advocate. She is a professor at UCLA and Columbia Law
School, specializing in race and gender issues. She also founded the Center for the Study of Intersectionality and Social Policy at Columbia Law School and continues to share her brilliant ideas regarding minority identity along with social and political inequality. So, she continues to perpetuate necessary social change, and it is because of Crenshaw that we are made aware of the diverse systems of oppression and discrimination faced by many.
Crenshaw first mentioned the term intersectionality in her 1989 dissertation for the University of Chicago Legal Forum entitled "Demarlginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Anti-Discrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Anti-Racist Politics."
Intersectionality allows us to grasp the different necessities of various individuals when combating systematic oppression. This also ties into the life of Ella Fitzgerald, as she faced discrimination due to both her gender and her race, deepening her struggle to succeed in the music industry, and posing as inspiration and means of education for how to deconstruct the exclusionary roots of our society.
Struggles with Racism
It is no secret that racism in America continues to be a highly prevalent issue, including in the music industry, but in the twentieth century, Black artists in the United States fared far worse and were continuously oppressed by the functionings of society. For Fitzgerald, a woman of color and jazz performer, this was no different, as she too dealt with challenges imposed on her solely due to her race. Simply by rising to fame and obtaining such a large influence over the music industry, despite the racial inequalities present in America at the time, is already a major stepping-stone in promoting equal rights and opportunities independent of race. Fitzgerald served as a role model to many, proving that people of color are too, just as capable of achieving success, and that discrimination and segregation of any kind must come to an end.
Ella Fitzgerald would not often engage in political commentary, wishing to separate politics from music. However, after having returned from a series of international trips to perform, and later returning to America in 1963, at the height of the civil rights movement, Fitzgerald decided to do an interview with her friend, Fred Robbins, popular New York radio host, to discuss her personal experiences with racism. Fitzgerald explains that she was not able to perform in Southern States
(which would later be desegregated by law in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson) and when she traveled to these regions, Fitzgerald was faced with hostility. For instance, in 1955, Fitzgerald was arrested in her dressing room, at an integrated show in Houston, and the officer treated her with immense disrespect upon arrival at the police station, proceeding to ask for her autograph. Sadly, this interview was never made public, and reasons for this remain unclear.
Nevertheless, Norman Granz, Fitzgerald's manager, was an avid activist in the civil rights movement, attempting to provide Fitzgerald with equal opportunities as far as possible, and removing "Negro" and "White" labels from some of her concerts. In addition, infamous icon Marilyn Monroe was a great supporter of Fitzgerald, using her connections to boost her career. Fitzgerald became the first African American to perform at the Mocambo Night Club in Los Angeles when Monroe promised to sit at the front row every night to watch her shows, boosting the club's publicity.
Fitzgerald went on to receive the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Equal Justice Award and the American Black Achievement Award. Clearly, her fight to oppose systematic racism in the music industry was rightfully rewarded. Also, in the very same interview conducted with Robbins, she describes how to fight for a more tolerant future, "the die-hards [racists], they're just going to die hard. They're not going to give in […] You've got to try and convince the younger ones, they're the ones who've got to make the future and those are the ones we've got to worry about. Not those die-hards."
Struggles with Sexism
As with any other spectrum of work, the music industry in America, was also male-dominated, and the female figures that were able to rise to the top, of which Fitzgerald was not the only one, faced the consequences of the structural sexism present in society. Fitzgerald, like others, was treated as inferior solely for being a woman, and in many cases, was regarded with disdain and disrespect. Still, through perseverance, determination and talent, she, and many other female artists, were able to overcome this.
Nonetheless, there is yet another way in which Fitzgerald contributed to the movement of feminism: the introduction of black feminism. The feminist movement was in many ways white-dominated, as women fought to be given rights, but excluded women of color or of different nationalities and sexual orientations in this. Returning to the concept of intersectionality, due to being not only a woman, but a
black woman, Fitzgerald represented minorities within the feminist movement itself, and fought for recognition and respect to be directed towards these individuals.
To conclude, what can we learn from all of this?
Not only are we able to delve into the life of one of the most influential figures in jazz history, but through studying the context of America at the time, and the treatment of women, specifically women of color, in any public sphere of influence, we can learn more about the roots of discrimination in the United States, and see how much we must still work to abolish this. Let Ella Fitzgerald serve as inspiration to us all, that talent must transcend racial and gender barriers, and that each and every individual must be treated with the respect they deserve within their own respective fields.