Ella Fitzgerald on the Big Screen

Fitzgerald overcame poverty and racism to become one of America’s greatest performers. 

Born in 1917 in Virginia, Ella Fitzgerald was one of the greatest entertainers of the 20th century. She overcame poverty and racism to win international fame.

A new documentary about her life and career, Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things, opens in select theaters on April 3. I had the chance to attend an advance screening in New York City.

“I want people to take away an understanding of the joy that Ella put into her performances,” director Leslie Woodhead told me at the screening. “She took the hard things in her life, and she turned them into her music, which is always joyful.” 

Fitzgerald, who died in 1993, was considered the world’s greatest “scat singer.” A master at imitating musical instruments with her voice, she would inject nonsense words and long syllables into her songs to create new melodies. 


Maya with Leslie Woodhead, the director of a new documentary about Ella Fitzgerald


As a child, Fitzgerald lived in a suburb of New York City with her family. She was an excellent student who loved to sing and dance. But after her mother died, her life grew increasingly tumultuous. Eventually, she was sent to live in an orphanage. 

At the age of 17, young Ella entered an amateur contest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. She was planning to dance but decided to sing at the last minute.  

“She won the contest,” Woodhead told me, “and it changed her life.”

Fitzgerald went on to dazzle audiences worldwide in a career that spanned nearly 60 years. Still, she struggled with racism at home. She was even arrested at a 1955 concert in Houston, Texas, which had been designed to promote the integration of African American and white performers. 

Many of the hardships that Fitzgerald endured were unknown to the public. As Reggie Nadelson, the film’s producer, said, “Most people thought she was just a nice lady with a beautiful voice.”


Maya with producer and author Reggie Nadelson in New York City


Movie poster: Kayos Productions; Photos courtesy of Scholastic Kids Press