Understanding How Ella Fitzgerald is a Muse for Our Música

Ella Fitzgerald BELatina

Ella Fitzgerald is a Jazz icon. Sometimes referred to as the Mother of Jazz, Fitzgerald is unexpectedly inspiring young Black Latina musicians and performers today. Black Colombian musician Mabiland and Black Cuba singer Daymé Arocena both say Fitzgerald’s life and music inspire them every day. Through taking a closer look at Fitzgerald’s impact and intention, one can see why young Black Latina performers cite her as an inspiration to them. 

Ella Fitzgerald’s Life and Influence

Born in Newport News, Virginia, Fitzgerald would become an internationally renowned jazz performer that changed the genre forever. When Fitzgerald was 15 years old, her mother passed away and Fitzgerald moved to Harlem to live with her aunt. As a young Black girl in New York City, Fitzgerald performed at several Harlem nightlife houses. The first time she performed at The Apollo Theatre she won the crowd but did not receive the prize of the night. Later on, in her career, Fitzgerald performed at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. Both of these locations were considered THE places to perform for Black performers during this time. Her ability to win over crowds in both of these locations made her a voice and performer to watch.

Ella Fitzgerald MCA Files
Photo: MCA Files

In addition to being considered one of the mothers of Jazz, Fitzgerald is the Mother of skat singing. Skat singing is a method of singing that uses improvised non-words and playful use of syllables to create sounds that compliment jazz instruments. Fitzgerald says that she was just trying to mirror the sounds of the horns and trumpets when she began to skat. This method of singing became synonymous with Fitzgerald and today is synonymous with Jazz. In more ways than one, Fitzgerald truly used her voice like an instrument. One that could keep up with horns and trumpets, hold out vocal runs, and go deep and earthy and light and airy when she wanted. 

Her list of accomplishments is complemented with her dedication to Civil Rights. As a Civil Rights Activist Fitzgerald refused to play for racially segregated crowds while on the Jazz at the Philharmonic tour. Additionally, she was guaranteed equal pay and rights as the other members of the Philharmonic – something that was almost unheard of during the 1950’s. 

Fitzgerald’s ability to be herself, stand up for herself, and change the world of music continues to be an inspiration to Black women everywhere. 

Fitzgerald’s influence on Black Latinas 

Daymé Arocena is an Afro-Cuban jazz singer from Havana. This award-winning singer cites Fitzgerald as one of her inspirations and says that what stands out to her the most about Fitzgerald is the risk she took. “Oh my God, what is she doing?” Arocena wondered the first time she heard Fitzgerald Skat singing, “I don’t know, but I want to do it too,” she says with a chuckle. One of the young artists’ goals is to Skat as well as Fitzgerald. 

Those who have listened to her NPR Tiny Desk concert in 2016 heard the inspiration when she broke out into skat singing. Not only does she skat during her performance, her talent radiates through the tiny space as she sings a melody of songs. Her voice, soulful and full of tender strength, is undoubtedly inspired by Fitzgerald but a sound all her own. 

Ella Fitzgerald
Photo Credit Jazz at Lincoln Center

Mabiland is a Black Colombiana who cites Fitzgerald as one of her inspirations. This young musician is pushing the boundaries of voice and instrument like Fitzgerald. The first Fitzgerald song Mabiland heard was Summertime. Years later, this song has stayed with the young artists and is a constant source of inspiration. Mabiland’s song Cánto Más mixes rap and hip-hop vocals with a neo-soul sound that gives the song a special movement. The song was such a hit and vibe that it is part of the Siempre Bruja soundtrack. 

One of the most beautiful things about Fitzgerald inspiring these two young Black Latina artists is that it shows that across time, space, and the Black diaspora, Black women will always find and inspire one another. Mabiland believes that anyone that wants to be a singer should know Ella Fitzgerald and we couldn’t agree more. 

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