Lasting legacy: Ella Fitzgerald's impact on Newport News remembered during centennial

Natalie Joseph

One hundred years after her birthday on April 25, 1917, a quick Google search still reminds people of where Ella Fitzgerald's iconic life began: Newport News.

Although she only lived in the area a few years as a child before moving to New York, Fitzgerald returned to the area throughout her career, all the while making a lasting musical impression on the world.

A woman of many firsts, Fitzgerald was the first Super Bowl halftime show performer, as well as one of the first vocalists to win a Grammy, when she won the first of 13 in 1959.

Known as the "First Lady of Song" more than two decades after her death in 1996, Fitzgerald is still admired and remembered.

Admiration for her can be seen in the most visible way in her hometown, with an "I heart Ella" sign making its way around Newport News.

"There's a lot of things that she was the first at that were difficult to accomplish at that time being a female and being African-American," said Michelle Gilliam, cultural supervisor for the city of Newport News and artist director at Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center. "A lot of times when I am talking to kids from around here, they light up because they realize they can do what Ella did too."

According to Gilliam, Fitzgerald's legacy is still seen through the Ella Fitzgerald Theater inside Downing-Gross, as well as local high school and university music programs and jazz ensembles. The city also remembers her by hosting the annual Ella Fitzgerald Music Festival, now in its 19th year.

Gilliam credits Fitzgerald with helping encourage young people from Newport News and its surrounding areas to believe in their dreams and explore artistic creativity.

"When you celebrate an icon that was born in our region, you are also celebrating other like stories from our city. We let our youth know they have control over their lives and can create bright futures just like Ella did," Gilliam said in an emailed statement.

In the Ella Fitzgerald Theater, which Gilliam helped create, local and national artists are invited to perform in the very place Fitzgerald passed by as a young girl, a place that once was a white-only school that opened the year she was born.

Gilliam and the rest of her team at Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center, including Ella Fitzgerald Scholarship recipient Aaron Reeves who now works at the center as a cultural arts specialist, want to use the centennial as a way to remind the community of Fitzgerald's legacy.

The Ella Fitzgerald Scholarship, created by Fitzgerald in 1993, helps provide financial assistance to young people like Reeves who are studying music. Reeves will graduate from Christopher Newport University next month.

"When I first received the scholarship, I thought it was just another scholarship, and I was happy to be receiving money for college. Come to find out, the scholarship is used for what she was passionate about, furthering music education," Reeves said. "It's become more than just a couple of extra bucks for me to get through school. It's had a really big impact on my life, who I am professionally, and it's amazing to see it keep coming to fruition."

Throughout the year, in partnership with the city and other organizations and businesses, various Ella-themed events led up to the Ella Fitzgerald Music Festival earlier this week featuring singers Rhonda Ross and Lizz Wright.

Since 1998, when CNU and the city of Newport News first partnered for the festival, the mission has been to provide a venue for aspiring talent and to bring big-name artists to Fitzgerald's hometown.

"The festival is to showcase her (Ella's) legacy but to also bring up other artists from the area and give them a home turf to hone their skills and really practice their craft, and that's an important way to honor Ella's legacy," Reeves said.

CNU director of jazz Kelly Rossum said the music department has made sure its students learn and know about Fitzgerald's musical influence because of her strong ties to the city that the college calls home.

"We play Ella's arrangements and a lot of the songs she's made popular. We always mention the great Ella and that she's from here at all of our concerts," Rossum said. "Throughout the semester, we've been studying Ella's music and learning the music."

Rossum is also the founder of Jazz 4 Justice, which, like the Ella Fitzgerald Scholarship, raises money to advance music education and Legal Aid Society of Eastern Virginia.

Jazz 4 Justice will host a performance Tuesday (Ella's birthday) at the Ferguson Center, aiming to raise money to further inspire the community to pursue the arts and aim as high in their careers as Fitzgerald did.

"She's one of the world's greatest musicians, let alone America's greatest musician, so for Newport News and the whole Hampton Roads area to show a lot of pride about that, I feel that. I feel happy and emotional that Ella Fitzgerald is from here because anybody here can make that much of an impact on the world. Anybody in this town, in this area, can do that same thing. It's really hopeful," Rossum said.

Through the year, the city of Newport News and individual organizations have hosted events to honor Fitzgerald's 100th birthday, including a pop-up jazz club called "Ella's Place" in City Center, jazz entertainment during the One City Marathon and the Peninsula Fine Arts Center's annual "Artini," which was themed around Fitzgerald's songs.

According to Gilliam, Newport News is not alone with its remembrance celebrations of Fitzgerald. Venues across the nation are recognizing her centennial during April, with performances at venues including Carnegie Hall in Manhattan and the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.

Upcoming events in Newport News for the centennial include a mobile mural by local artist Asa Jackson and an Ella-themed tourism week. There is also an art exhibit at Downing-Gross featuring original works from photographers and artists based on Fitzgerald's songs. The exhibit runs until May.

For Jackson, who grew up in the area, creating a mural for Fitzgerald's centennial is a great honor. He hopes his mural, which is a portrait of Fitzgerald and will move around the city starting at City Hall on Tuesday, will encourage local artists to feel connected to her legacy and encourage them to pursue their own dreams.

"I chose the specific image for the mural because I wanted to have something that was a younger side but also very glamorous. I wanted the piece to really feel iconic," Jackson said. "For artists or creatives like myself, or just people with big dreams, whenever we can see an example that's from a familiar place, that's always inspirational. She's a giant in not just music culture but American culture."

Joseph can be reached by phone at 757-374-3134.

Ella Fitzgerald's centennial celebration

CNU Jazz Ensemble

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Where: Ferguson Center, Avenue of the Arts, Newport News.

Cost: $15 general admission; $10 students.

Info: or 757-594-8752.

Ella Fitzgerald mural unveiling

When: Visit for date and time of mural's unveiling.

Where: City Hall, 2400 Washington Ave., Newport News.

Info: or 757-933-2311.

Tourism week

When: May 7 to May 13.

Info: or 757-933-2311.

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