When Ella Fitzgerald—who would've turned 100-years-old today—first approached the Apollo stage in the winter of 1934, she didn't plan on singing. It was amateur night at the notoriously competitive venue, and the then-unknown teenager had thrown her name into the hat on a whim, only to be picked to perform after a popular local dance troupe. She'd initially signed up as a dancer, but abandoned the idea en route to the stage.
"I looked and I saw all those people, and I said, 'Oh my gosh, what am I going to do out here?'" Fitzgerald later told NPR. "Everybody started laughing and said, 'What is she gonna do?' And I couldn't think of nothing else, so I tried to sing 'The Object of My Affection.'"
According to most histories, she'd end up winning that night's competition—cash prize: $25—and soon joined Chick Webb's house band down the street from the Apollo at the Savoy Ballroom. Preserved radio recordings of that era show the young first lady of song crooning over her swing drum counterpart in all her still-undiscovered glory.
Over the next five decades, Fitzgerald would claim her rightful throne as the Queen of Jazz, recording some 2,000 songs over the course of more than 200 albums. She'd perform at Carnegie Hall 26 times, including for her last concert, in 1991.
Following that performance, the Times described Fitzgerald as an "exuberant human trumpet," noting that "her musicianly ear, her perfect enunciation and the best parts of her style continue to hold off the years." She'd pass away five years later, at her Beverly Hills home, at the age of 79.
To celebrate the 100th birthday of the late Queen of Jazz, several venues will be hosting Ella-versaries over the next week. In midtown on Tuesday night (4/25), Jane Monheit will host two concerts at the Birdland—one at 8:30 p.m. and one at 11 p.m. Over at Lincoln Center, Harry Connick Jr. hosts a Lady Ella Gala on Wednesday night (4/26), and Wynston Marsalis leads the music portion of the centennial celebration Thursday (4/27) through Saturday (4/29). The National Jazz Museum in Harlem will also be marking the occasion with Fitzgerald-themed events and exhibitions spread out over the next month.
If you can't make any of the events, brighten up your rainy day with this memorable rendition of "Manhattan."