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Ella Fitzgerald’s lasting legacy at WSU

Closeups of Ella Fitzgerald performing and a section of the Washington State College's Daily Evergreen promoting her upcoming appearance.
Ella Fitzgerald joined big names such as Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Roy Eldridge, "Flip" Phillips, and others when she headlined Jazz at the Philharmonic on Wednesday, Nov. 5, 1952 in Bohler Gym.

Julie Silvera was many years into her professional singing career when the two‑time WSU graduate learned that Ella Fitzgerald had performed at WSU, headlining Jazz at the Philharmonic, on Nov. 5, 1952 inside Bohler Gym.

“The first time I heard Ella had performed there, it made me cry,” said Silvera, who started at WSU as a pianist, but blossomed as a jazz vocalist. “I have no idea why, it’s just one of many things from my time at WSU that was life altering for me. (Fitzgerald) was one of my heroes. I can’t explain how much Ella means to me.”

Fitzgerald performed the day after Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected for his first term as president. She was already famous worldwide, her elegance shining through on ballads and jazz numbers alike.

The show in Pullman was part of a 57‑city, cross‑country tour with Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic. The Evergreen advertised tickets for $1.80, and described the show as a “concertized jam session.” The four‑part show featured distinct styles, and was headlined by Fitzgerald, who performed in parts 2–4.

“Ella Fitzgerald is the star of the second portion, and here is the one gal who doesn’t have a ‘type’ of number necessary to show off her voice and style to advantage,” the Evergreen raved a day before the show. “Ella sings rhythm tunes, ballads, bop choruses, novelty numbers and blues with equal ease and showmanship and, year after year, the crowds refuse to let her leave the stage.”

Granz conceived of the Jazz at the Philharmonic series and launched it in 1944. He used the concerts to showcase black artists, and many times challenged barriers they faced throughout the country.

In their biography, “Norman Granz: The man who used jazz for justice,” Tad Hershorn and Oscar Peterson wrote about the impact of the tours.

About this series

The contributions of America’s communities of color have long helped shape Washington State University, sometimes in ways that wouldn’t become apparent for decades or generations to come.

Re‑Exploring History is dedicated to taking a fresh look at those moments during the early‑ to mid‑20th century where African American academics, performers and entertainers left their mark on the University’s future, even while having to navigate segregation and other societal obstacles.

The series relies heavily on the historical sleuthing skills of WSU staff member and Ph.D. student James Bledsoe and Mark O’English with the Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections section of WSU Libraries.

Read previous installments featuring Booker T. Washington, Roland Hayes, and Louis Armstrong.

“After six years (Jazz at the Philharmonic) had become an eagerly anticipated annual highlight for tens of thousands of jazz fans across the country, and by 1952, it had refashioned the music industry to make concerts the dominant vehicle for reaching jazz audiences.”

A big part of that jazz explosion was Fitzgerald. Granz would become her personal manager in 1954, and opened doors for her to play to bigger venues and grow her profile worldwide.

“(Granz) wanted Ella Fitzgerald to become what she was supposed to be: First Lady of Song,” said singer and bandleader Billy Eckstine when he eulogized Fitzgerald in 1996. “And she had been getting the seventy‑fifth lady of song’s money. Norman just broke down those racial barriers… he did it out of his heart.”

Silvera is now a renowned singer and music educator based in Hamburg, Germany. Born in Jamaica, Silvera found her way to WSU and was unsure of her path forward. She wound up falling in love with jazz and shining as a student, earning a bachelor’s and a master’s degree while performing regionally and winning numerous awards at the University of Idaho’s Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival.

Her hard work and musical talent led to her winning Downbeat Magazine’s college performance competition, which earned her a scholarship to the University of Miami, where she earned her Doctorate in Musical Performance in jazz vocal performance. Meanwhile, she performed with some of the biggest names in music, including Josh Groban, Michael Bublé, Gloria Estefan, Quincy Jones, Bernadette Peters, KC (of KC and the Sunshine Band), and German pop star Max Mutske.

Her rich voice and versatility as a performer have drawn comparisons to some of her heroes, including Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. She teaches at the University of Luebeck, and has toured Europe while splitting time between Germany and the U.S.

It’s a path that would have seemed incomprehensible when she was a self-described “fish out of water,” undergraduate, nervously pacing backstage at Bryan Hall before making her debut as a vocalist.

“Pullman has a distinct rhythm for me,” Silvera said. “It’s a very precious place.”

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