The Grammy Museum is putting rare Ella Fitzgerald memorabilia on display for what would have been the singing legend’s 100th birthday.
The museum’s “Ella at 100: Celebrating the Artistry of Ella Fitzgerald” exhibition includes the first Grammy Award that Fitzgerald won — the first awarded to an African-American woman — as well as some of her gowns, sheet music and personal telegrams.
Fitzgerald died in 1996 at 79 from complications with diabetes and left few possessions beyond personal notes, but the exhibit puts a focus on what made Fitzgerald a star — her voice.
Her voice is the key
Grammy Museum curator Nwaka Onwusa says she wants visitors to be captivated by her singing, so the exhibit includes video and audio of her early performances with jazz greats Count Basie or Duke Ellington.
The exhibit is one of several celebrations of Fitzgerald’s birthday on Tuesday. New York City declared it Ella Fitzgerald Day and the Smithsonian has also opened a special exhibit, while Starbucks stores in the United States played her music.
“Ella Fitzgerald’s is probably the single most important voice in American history,” said recording artist Miles Mosley. “If you’re going to start with any song before 1970, her version is the one you start from. That’s the ground floor. That is the most representative version of what the composer themselves wished their songs would sound like.”
Performed in many styles
Over the course of her career, she sang swing, bebop, pop, jazz. Among her best-known works are a 1938 novelty smash, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” which she co-wrote, and a series of eight album sets, each dedicated to an American songwriter or songwriting team. In addition to being best sellers, those albums helped establish the long-play record as a platform for deeper, more serious musical exploration.
Twenty-plus years after Fitzgerald’s death, the rave reviews keep pouring in.
Celebration of Fitzgerald’s 100th actually began March 31, as Dianne Reeves held a Fitzgerald tribute concert at the Library of Congress, which serves as home to Fitzgerald’s personal library. A day later, Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, which has long hosted a Fitzgerald exhibit, opened a new display, “First Lady of Song: Ella Fitzgerald at 100,” kicking off Jazz Appreciation Month.
Onwusa said Fitzgerald’s exhibit was not an easy display to put together, noting that the relatively new Grammy Museum, which opened in 2008, could not compete with the long-established Smithsonian and Library of Congress, which have long been collecting Fitzgerald memorabilia.
Gowns are a key attraction
But the Los Angeles-based Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation and Fitzgerald estate came through with enough items to make for an attraction, including gowns Fitzgerald wore in performance, rare photographs, sheet music, newspaper articles, concert programs. Securing performance footage proved more challenging, but was critical for Onwusa.
“When you come to Ella at 100, immediately we want visitors to be captivated by her voice,” she explained. “That’s what draws you to Ella.”
To that end, there are viewing and listening stations, where exhibit visitors can watch and hear Fitzgerald performing in various points in her career. She was an active professional performer for some 65 years, going in semi-retirement in 1994, after having both of her legs amputated below the knee due to the effects of the diabetes.
‘100 Songs for a Centennial’
For those just being introduced to Fitzgerald, Verve/UMe has just released a career-spanning primer, the four-CD set “100 Songs for a Centennial.” For hardcore fans, there’s the lavish six-album vinyl limited-edition “Ella Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song Books,” which is newly packaged with lithographs, a book and a bonus track. Numerous other releases and events are planned throughout the year.
But once the celebration ends, it’s fairly clear that the Fitzgerald legacy will continue.
Grammy Museum executive director Scott Goldman singled out a relative newcomer such as Andra Day as a perfect example. “(Here’s) a young African-American artist who is blurring the lines between jazz and soul and R&B.” he noted. “If you listen to Andra Day, you’ll hear a little Ella Fitzgerald. And I think many artists carry that. I think that’s what makes Ella Fitzgerald so special. She lives.”
The exhibit runs through Sept. 10.