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Ella Fitzgerald: Songs, Improvisational Style & Vocal Phrasing

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  • 0:02 Ella Fitzgerald
  • 1:04 Songs and Vocal Style
  • 3:34 Improvisation and Scat
  • 5:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Ella Fitzgerald was one of the greatest singers of the 20th century. In this lesson, you'll explore her personal style and discover where she fits in the history of jazz. Then, you can test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Ella Fitzgerald

What is it about jazz music that makes us want to give everybody royal titles? Ellington was the Duke, Basie was the Count, Hines was the Earl. There's a King of Trumpet, a King of Swing, and at least seven contenders for the title of King of Jazz. But there is only one queen. Ella Fitzgerald, an American jazz singer of the mid-20th century, ruled under the titles Queen of Jazz, Lady Ella and the First Lady of Song.

In the royal court of jazz, Ella's position is uncontested, and her legacy as a singer has been one of the most influential in American history. Noted for her crisp tone, perfect dictation and impressive improvisational skills, Ella Fitzgerald redefined the role of the jazz singer and, in many ways, redefined jazz music itself. And with that, we now present her royal highness, the Queen of Jazz. Long live the queen.

Songs and Vocal Style

Over the course of her career, Ella Fitzgerald recorded over 75 albums, along with dozens of hit singles that topped the charts in the United States as well as abroad. Perhaps the most famous of all of these recordings was her interpretation of the Great American Songbook, a collection of the most respected American songs of the early 20th century. The Great American Songbook drew from popular music, jazz, Broadway and even Hollywood musicals, but all of these songs were considered important enough to have defined American music.

It took eight years and eight entire albums, but from 1956-1964, Ella managed to sing nearly the entire songbook. Now, when Ella covered these artists, she was not simply copying them or creating a repeat performance. Her interpretations gave new life to old songs in a way that both cemented their legacies in the history of music and simultaneously made them feel new again.

Ella's takes on the Great American Songbook display her skill and versatility as a singer. Some songs were jazz, some were musical theater, some were orchestral. But all of them she sang flawlessly. Throughout her career, Ella Fitzgerald was constantly praised for her vocal skills and her clean, crisp sound. To musicians, she was a master of phrasing, which is the way that singers group lyrics and notes.

Imagine you're singing. You have words to sing, and those words must be on pitch and on tempo. So that's all there is to it, right? Not quite. When do you breathe? In between sentences, after specific words, in between chord changes? Should you place words directly on the beat, slightly ahead of the beat or slightly behind the beat? Do you sing nouns, prepositions and verbs with the same emphasis? Which words sound better as high notes or low notes, which are best perfectly on pitch, and which are best emphasized by bending them or starting lower and sliding up to them?

These are all questions that go into phrasing, and the way that a musician phrases the lyrics can dramatically impact the effectiveness of the piece. When Ella sang, her phrasing gave life to lyrics, emotionally charging them to create a sense of drama, excitement, composure, suspense, humor or tragedy.

Improvisation and Scat

Ella Fitzgerald was clearly a great singer. But she was still, first and foremost, a jazz singer, and jazz music means improvisation. Yes, singers improvise, too. In jazz, the most common form of vocal improvisation is called scat singing, in which syllables and sounds are used instead of actual words.

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