The Life and Legacy of Ella Fitzgerald of Yonkers

Ella Fitzgerald is one of the most iconic and influential jazz singers of all time. A Yonkers-native, Fitzgerald’s talent and love of music led her to become one of the most beloved performers in history. And the city that she called home has since honored her life and works with a bronze statue and a school dedicated in her name.

Early Life

Benjamin Franklin School
Benjamin Franklin School โ€“ Westchester County Historical Society

Born in Yonkers in 1917, Fitzgerald’s early life was marked by tragedy and hardship. Her parents separated when she was young, and her mother moved to Yonkers to live on School Street with her new partner. She was an excellent student who attended Public School 18 and then Benjamin Franklin Junior High School. Though tragically, her mother passed away when she was just 15 years old. Struggling to make ends meet, Fitzgerald found herself living on the streets and eventually landed in a reform school in the Bronx. It was during this time that she discovered her love of singing, and began performing at local talent shows and contests.

In 1934, Fitzgerald entered a talent competition at the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem. Though she originally intended to perform a dance routine, she made a switch at the last minute. Instead, Fitzgerald wowed the audience by singing her rendition of โ€œJudy,โ€ a popular song at the time. Her performance earned her first place in the competition, and she quickly became a regular performer at the Apollo.

Top of the Charts

Over the next few years, Fitzgerald’s career continued to grow. She began performing with some of the top jazz musicians of the time. Fitzgerald recorded her first hit song, โ€œA-Tisket, A-Tasket,โ€ which quickly became a chart-topper and established her as a rising star in the music world.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Fitzgerald continued to record and perform. She earned critical acclaim and commercial success with hits like โ€œI Can’t Give You Anything But Love,โ€ โ€œIt Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),โ€ and โ€œSummertime.โ€ Her clear, pure voice and impeccable timing made her a favorite among jazz fans and music lovers alike. This made her one of the most sought-after performers in the industry.

In addition to her incredible talent as a singer, Fitzgerald was also known for her incredible improvisational skills. She was a master of scat singing. Scat singing is a technique in which the singer uses nonsense syllables to create a melody and rhythm. Her ability to improvise and create on the spot was unparalleled, and she remains one of the most respected and admired jazz singers of all time.

Despite her incredible success, Fitzgerald’s personal life was not without its challenges. She struggled with health issues throughout her career, and suffered from diabetes and heart disease in her later years. And, as a black woman in America, she was the victim of racism and discrimination her entire life.

A lifelong legacy

Ella Fitzgerald Statue
Ella Fitzgerald Statue in Yonkers

Despite these obstacles, Fitzgerald remained a beloved and influential figure in the music world until her death in 1996. She won 13 Grammy Awards over the course of her career. Just months after her death, a bronze statue of Fitzgerald was unveiled in Yonkers. The statue named, โ€œThe First Lady of Jazz,โ€ stands in the Trolley Barn Plaza at the corner of Buena Vista Avenue and Main Street. Ella Fitzgerald was honored in Yonkers again when the very school she attended as a child was renamed in her honor. The Ella Fitzgerald Academy was dedicated on September 29, 2022 with a grand ceremony and words of praise.

We celebrate the lives and accomplishments of Yonkers residents past and present. Generations of students will learn about Ella Fitzgerald whose legacy will inspire their love for the arts, learning and courage.

Rev. Steve Lopez – Yonkers Board of Education President

The legacy of Ella Fitzgerald lives on not just through statues of her visage and buildings adorned with her name. But, more importantly, it is her voice and style that will remain timeless. Her impact on the music industry is immeasurable. And, as a trailblazer and pioneer, she will always be remembered as one of the greatest singers of all time.

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