Smithsonian Celebrates “First Lady of Song” Ella Fitzgerald With Special Display

March 10, 2017
News Release
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Black and white photo of Ella Fitzgerald in performance

To celebrate the centennial of jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald (1917–1996), the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will unveil “Ella Fitzgerald: The First Lady of Song at 100,” a special display opening April 1. The exhibit will inaugurate the museum’s 16th annual Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), which begins with a March 31 Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra highlighting women in jazz.

JAM was founded at the National Museum of American History in April 2002 and is an annual event that pays tribute to jazz both as a historic and living American art form. It coincides with the April birthdays of such jazz giants as Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, and Tito Puente.

“We celebrate the extraordinary heritage and history of American jazz by presenting programming and encouraging people of all ages to immerse themselves in the music that is the soundtrack to our history,” said Museum Director John Gray. 

“Ella Fitzgerald: The First Lady of Song at 100” will explore Fitzgerald’s impact on American jazz culture through a collection of objects, sheet music and photographs. As one of the first African American female celebrities to appear in commercial print ad campaigns aimed at a general audience, Fitzgerald broke racial barriers. At the center of the display, visitors will be drawn to the iconic bright red, double-breasted two-piece suit, designed by Don Loper, as well as the red hat and white glasses she wore in the 1986 American Express print ad. The costume is depicted in an Annie Leibovitz photograph that will also be on view.

Also showcasing Fitzgerald’s extraordinary career will be a recording of her 1938 first hit “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” and a selection from her 13 Grammy Awards, including her 1990 award for Best Female Jazz Vocal Performance, and four essential video clips. The display will include the commemorative broken goblet presented to Fitzgerald by Memorex Corp. for her participation in the “Is it Ella or is it Memorex?” campaign, an award medallion of the Kennedy Center Honors Lifetime Achievement Award she received in 1979 and covers from her albums Ella Swings Brightly, The First Lady of Song, Cole Porter Song Book and Ella and Louis. For more information about the exhibition, visit

Born April 25, 1917, in Newport News, Va., and raised in Yonkers, N.Y., Fitzgerald was orphaned at 15. A regular attendee at amateur musical events, she was “discovered” while signing at Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater and soon became a household name, widely known for her work with jazz luminaries such as Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie. Dubbed “The First Lady of Song,” Fitzgerald became widely recognized for her work, her superb rhythmic sense, considerable versatility and meticulous intonation. Especially renowned for her exceptional talent at “scat” singing, which put her on the level of great instrumental improvisers.

“The First Lady of Song” is made possible by a grant from the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation. JAM is funded through support from the LeRoy Neiman Foundation, the Argus Fund, the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, Goldman Sachs and the John Hammond Performance Series Endowment Fund.

For more information about JAM events, visit A full schedule of events follows below.

Through incomparable collections, rigorous research and dynamic public outreach, the National Museum of American History explores the infinite richness and complexity of American history. It helps people understand the past in order to make sense of the present and shape a more humane future. The museum is continuing to renovate its west exhibition wing, developing galleries on democracy and culture. The museum is located at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W., and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free. For more information, visit For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000.

JAM 2017 Programs and Performances

“Women in Jazz—The Influence of Ella Fitzgerald, Mary Lou Williams and Lil Hardin Armstrong”

Friday, March 31; 7:30 p.m.

Wallace H. Coulter Performance Plaza, 1 West

Individual tickets required: $25–$40

For tickets, visit

Celebrating the work of female composers, musicians, and orchestrators, with a special spotlight on Ella Fitzgerald, Mary Lou Williams and Lil Hardin Armstrong, the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra will explore the lasting influence of women in jazz.

“Smithsonian Jazz Objects Out of Storage”

Tuesday, April 4, 11, 18, 25; 1–3 p.m.

Wallace H. Coulter Plaza, 1 West

Free; no tickets required

Every Tuesday, the museum will present rarely seen jazz objects, instruments and archives from the museum’s collections for the public to view.

Object themes:

April 4: Women in Jazz

April 11: Latin Jazz (featuring a special hands-on drum activity)

April 18: Women in Jazz

April 25: Ella Fitzgerald

“Jazz Appreciation Month Daytime Concerts”

Thursday, April 6, 13, 20, 27; noon, 1 and 2 p.m.

Wallace H. Coulter Plaza, 1 West

Free; no tickets required

Every Thursday, the museum will feature three performances by local musicians and universities celebrating the role of women in jazz:

April 6: USAF Airmen of Note

April 13: Howard University Jazz Ensemble

April 20: Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Ensemble

April 27: George Washington University Latin Jazz Band

“Jazz Piano in LeFrak Lobby”

April 24, 25, 26, 28; noon

LeFrak Lobby, 1 Center

Free; no tickets required

Throughout the last week of April, visitors can enjoy jazz performances by talented, local pianists. This program is in partnership with Big Band Jam! The American Federation of Musicians and Blues Alley.

“Cooking Up History: The Food of Jazz”

Friday, April 28; 2 p.m.

Wallace H. Coulter Performance Plaza, 1 West

Free; no tickets required

This program will explore the relationship between food, jazz and American history with guest chef Rock Harper, who will prepare dishes from America’s leading jazz communities.

Jazz on the Road

“Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Ensemble and Sharon Clark: Ella at 100”

Tuesday, April 25; 8 and 10 p.m.

Blues Alley in Georgetown, Washington, D.C.

Individual tickets required: $35

For tickets, visit Blues Alley at:

The Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Ensemble and guest vocalist Sharon Clark will celebrate Fitzgerald’s centennial with a special performance at Blues Alley in Georgetown, Washington, D.C.

“Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra: A Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald”

Sunday, April 30; 3 p.m.

Capitol Theater in Chambersburg, Pa.

Individual tickets required: $10

For tickets, visit the Capitol Theater at

To close out JAM 2017, The Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra will present a special big band tribute to Ella Fitzgerald at the Capitol Theater in Chambersburg, Pa.


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Melinda Machado

(202) 633-3129

National Museum of American History
Press Office

(202) 633-3129