Ella Fitzgerald, known affectionately as the 'First Lady of Song,' had a remarkable journey from her hometown of Newport News, Virginia, to the grand stages of the world. As a beacon of talent and resilience, Ella's voice transcended the barriers of society to touch the hearts of millions globally. 

Few people are familiar with her humble roots living in poverty and the struggles she faced to rise to fame and become a jazz legend. This spring, we celebrate the 26th anniversary of the Ella Fitzgerald Music Festival right here in Virginia, and continue to honor her legacy. 

Let’s dive into Ella's story and connection to Virginia, from the cultural beacon that is the Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center to the vibrant mural on 26th Street in Newport News.

Ella's Early Days in Newport News 

Ella Fitzgerald Historic Marker
Photo Credit: Laura Messer

Ella was born on April 25, 1917. Her parents lived in the heart of Newport News’ East End section, a few blocks away from what used to be an all-white high school. At the time, no one knew a star had been born right here in Virginia. Although her time in Newport News spanned just two years before moving to Yonkers, New York, these early years laid the groundwork for a legacy that would last more than a lifetime. 

In those days, many people of color were migrating north to New York, Michigan, and other states in search of a better life and more opportunities. Even from a young age, however, Ella’s spirit enchanted everyone around her, and she sang and danced at a moment’s notice. 

In school, Ella’s natural talent began to shine. She joined her church’s choir, took piano lessons, and learned to read sheet music. Listening to jazz music was an everyday occurrence in the Fitzgerald household, with Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby as favorites. 

When her mother died in a tragic car accident, she moved to Harlem to live with her aunt. Despite many challenges she faced in New York, she continued her passion for music and dancing, which ultimately led to her rapid rise to fame soon thereafter.

The Ella Fitzgerald Music Festival

Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center
Photo Credit: Laura Messer

Every year in April, the Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center transforms into the esteemed Ella Fitzgerald Theater, becoming a hub of celebration for the Ella Fitzgerald Music Festival. The festival spans three days and pays tribute to her role as a leader for young musicians everywhere.

Local and regional musicians perform live during the festival, setting the stage for emerging talent to take the spotlight. The community of Newport News has held the festival for over 25 years, contributing to Ella’s enduring legacy and paving the way for future musicians. To this day, Ella’s influence spans across genres and generations alike. 

Ella’s Return to Virginia & Her Lasting Legacy

Once a homeless teenager in Harlem, Ella quickly became one of the most celebrated voices in music. Her first chart-topping hit made history in 1938 and her success only continued. Her early recordings showcased her a vocal prowess marked by impeccable intonation, diction, and a remarkable three-octave range. Aside from her incredible technical ability, Ella went one step further – she conveyed so much joy and emotional depth simultaneously through her music. Especially during the Great Depression, audiences found solace in Ella’s singing.

Hippodrome Theater in Richmond's Jackson Ward neighborhood

After rising to fame as a performer, Ella returned to Virginia to sing at the Hippodrome Theatre in Jackson Ward, Richmond’s historic Black neighborhood. Unfortunately, racial segregation prevented her from performing at many venues in Richmond. 

Later, she would go on to perform at the Cavalier Hotel’s famous Beach Club at the height of its popularity. The Virginia Beach hotel was the largest contractor of big band performers in the world between 1930 and 1950. Ella is among the likes of Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman, and Cab Calloway who all performed at the Cavalier Hotel.

As a global music icon, Ella paved the way for future artists, especially those of color, demonstrating that talent and perseverance can lead to unprecedented success. 

Ella Fitzgerald Mural - “Where There is Love and Inspiration”
Photo Credit: Laura Messer

Ella Fitzgerald's legacy lives on, offering fans and newcomers alike the chance to experience her influence firsthand. A visit to the Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center in Newport News is a must for those looking to immerse themselves in the world of Ella. At the center, the Ella Fitzgerald Theater is a testament to her impact on the local community in Newport News and beyond. 

One notable landmark in the area is the mural on 26th Street, an impressive scene located at the Jefferson Brookville Apartments. Standing at roughly 13-foot-tall and 12-foot-wide, the mural not only captivates onlookers with its scale but also with its intricate mosaic pieces, adding a tangible piece of Ella's story to the urban landscape. 

The community also renamed 24th Street in Ella’s honor, changing the street to Ella Fitzgerald Way in 2008. Through these lasting commemorations, Ella's spirit and legacy continue to inspire and touch the lives of those who walk the streets of this Virginia town.

Visiting Newport News Today

Virginia Living Museum
Photo Credit: The Vacation Channel, @vacationchannels

Part of the Hampton Roads region along Virginia’s coastline, Newport News offers plenty to do, from sunny beaches and thriving neighborhoods filled with boutique shops and locally owned restaurants to notable historic sites and family-friendly attractions.

Grab a drink at a local brewery such as Tradition Brewing Company, see a show at the Peninsula Community Theatre, and make your own artwork at the Starving Artist Studio. Kids will love the Virginia Living Museum, an open-air museum with living exhibits of Virginia’s indigenous species, as well as The Mariners’ Museum & Park, one of the largest maritime museums in the United States.

Here in Virginia and across the world, Ella Fitzgerald’s music will remain timeless. She has touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of people with her music. 

How can you keep Ella’s legacy alive? Listen to her discography, visit the landmarks dedicated to her memory, and enjoy the celebration of the annual Ella Fitzgerald Music Festival. By engaging with her music and the places that honor her, you not only pay tribute to her incredible journey but also become part of the ongoing story of the “First Lady of Song”. 

Let's keep her melody alive for generations to come by exploring, celebrating, and remembering the unparalleled Virginia local, Ella Fitzgerald!