Ella Fitzgerald receiving her Honorary Doctorate in Music at Harvard University in 1990 (photo: Charles Krupa)
by Lori Lakin Hutcherson (@lakinhutcherson)
Although I’m typically calm-if-a-bit-nerdy when I meet artists I admire, there is one time in my life I fully lost my natural mind for someone. That someone was the woman and musical legend Good Black News is celebrating today, April 25, on what would have been her 103rd birthday – Ella Fitzgerald.
To set the scene, it was the day of my college graduation in June of 1990. I was standing in my black cap and gown next to my roommates, as the graduating class formed something akin to a Soul Train line for alumni, professors and distinguished guests to walk through on the way to taking the stage for the ceremony. I’d spent four long, great years earning a bachelor’s degree at Harvard in American History and Literature with a minor in African-American Studies. I also DJ’d at the college radio station 92.3FM WHRB all four of those years.
In addition to being all about hip-hop, house, R&B and dance music, I fell in love with jazz at WHRB, too. So much so that I got up several mornings a week to jock the 6-8am “Jazz Spectrum” program at WHRB, and even found a way to incorporate jazz into my senior thesis by comparing jazz autobiography to the slave narrative. Not exactly everyone’s idea of a page-turner, I know, but it was nice and egghead-y, earned me high honors from my department, and was a sneaky way to earn credit while spending time deepening my nascent love of jazz and jazz history.
So when I heard Ella Fitzgerald – the singer whose interpretation of “Lullaby of Birdland” took my heart and mind to heights of joy so unexpected that I immediately began to consume her versions of every standard as if they were musical narcotics – was on the list of people receiving honorary degrees from Harvard that year, I was beyond thrilled. Ella, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson were my personal Mt. Rushmore of jazz singers, and having her name indelibly connected to my class was momentous.
But I also knew she’d had some recent health issues (she was 73 at the time) and did not expect her to accept her doctorate in person. In fact, I was saying pretty much that to my roommate Susan as several of the distinguished graduation guests filed past us. And then I turned. And saw her. Elegant. Beautiful. Smiling. Ella.
There was a consistent smattering of applause accompanying every step she took. When I finally caught my breath, all that came roaring out of my mouth was the primal scream – “ELLLLLLLAAAAA!!!! ELLLLLLLAAAAA!!!” I couldn’t stop. I was hopping up and down and cheering and – as I said before – losing my natural mind.
I saw on my roommate’s face and other faces around me that amused “Damn, what exactly is happening to her right now?” look, but that was all in slow motion and I did not care because a national treasure was walking towards me. The architect of vocal improvisation and scatting and so much pure jazz singing greatness was in my sights, and I could not contain myself.
I think Ella heard me before she saw me, because I saw her glance my way, smile, then veer close enough to lay her hand on my forearm. Yes, that’s right, I can now and forever brag that the one and only Ella Fitzgerald touched me.
As I observed her small but mighty hand on my forearm, it reminded me of my grandmother’s. From it I felt a gentle squeeze – and in that squeeze she communicated her amusement, her thanks, and, if I’m being 💯 about it, encouragement to get a gotdamn grip on myself and attempt some level of decorum. I was at my graduation ceremony, her hand reminded me, not Showtime at the Apollo. And then she kept going down the line and when no more dignitaries were left to file past us, we collapsed the Soul Train line and headed to our seats.
I have no idea what else was said or done during the rest of that ceremony – I spent most of it plotting with my wing woman Karen Moody on how to get close enough to the stage so I could ask Ella for her autograph. Moody offered to distract the security guard once the ceremony was over – she turned on her gift of gab and I was able to glide by and up to Miss Fitzgerald with a pen and the only paper I had, my graduation program. Ella graciously signed it and smiled at me once again as security quickly became undistracted and pointed me away.
Thirty years later, when I look back on this moment, I can’t help but ask myself exactly why I went so crazy. The obvious answer is, duh – ELLA FITZGERALD – but it was such lightning bolt of energy that came through me, it was more than that. Back then I didn’t know much about her life, her professional or personal struggles, but something in me knew to honor the totality of who she was, what she’d gone through and what she gave to this world.
Ella Fitzgerald deserved (and got) a full body-and-soul shout out from the younger generation through me that day. To let her know that she was seen, heard, loved and would never be forgotten, particularly by those, like me, who present to the world in the same type of package.
And here I am again, thirty years later, shouting out love and appreciation for the one and only Ella, master of tone, phrasing, intonation, improvisation and interpretation, so the next generation may know her and pass on to the next their appreciation for one of the best to ever do it.
Below is a playlist compiled in her honor, as well as several other resources and links to foster even more awareness of the “First Lady of Song.” Love you always, Ella!
To read more: http://www.ellafitzgerald.com/about/biography or https://www.biography.com/musician/ella-fitzgerald or
Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz by Stuart Nicholson
To see the trailer for upcoming documentary Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things, watch above.