“Just don’t give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don’t think you can go wrong.”-Ella Fitzgerald
Summertime, and the living is easy…
…or is it?
I don’t know about you, but I can barely walk my dog, Arthur, around the block without coming back covered in a fine mist of sweat these days. Although Tampa summers aren’t known to be mild, it’s been especially brutal this week.
The summer here tends to feel a lot like groundhog day, except with the complete opposite weather. We have highs in the low 90s, lows in the high 70s, and a thunderstorm every evening to chip away at some of the extreme humidity that builds throughout each day. This phenomenon is why our record high temperature is only 99 degrees; it’s not like the dry Southwest where the temps barely pause at the 100-degree mark before continuing to climb, and it’s also not like my childhood home in the mid-Atlantic, where a 105-degree heat wave can sink in and take up residence for days at a time.
However, this week the heat index in Tampa was a ripe 110 degrees. Combine that with 100% humidity, and you can see why I’m struggling to stay dry. It makes me contemplate whether it would it be preferable to pant like Arthur to regulate my body temperature. Judging by the half hour he spends in a daze on the cool floor after each walk, probably not. But it would be infinitely more entertaining to see people panting instead of simply walking around with pit stains and “swamp butt,” no?
In addition to the outfit changes and additional laundry necessitated by this weather, I also notice a marked difference in everyone’s faculties and sense of urgency, from the bag boy at the grocery store to my friendly neighbors. This phenomenon even strikes Arthur. Sometimes when I walk him at the hottest time in the day, he’ll reach a shady patch of grass and seem to forget what he’s doing. He starts sniffing around, circling once or twice, and then looks up at me with watery eyes and a heavy pant. You might say I’m projecting, but I swear when this happens he’s looking at me for guidance, because the heat has made him forget the one thing he’s there to do.
Similarly, I swear that my mind and my movements slow down as a consequence of the oppressive heat and humidity. The southern saying, “as slow as molasses,” might apply here, except that molasses must become as runny and thin as the sweat dripping down my back in these swampy conditions. I would test this out, but who keeps molasses around? I’m a Northern transplant and Tampa is culturally farther north than most places in the “south,” so molasses is thankfully still a foreign substance to me.
When the muggy, balmy Florida summer settles in, it’s like a houseguest who can’t take the hint that they’re being too loud. Ignoring all of us mammals as we melt and pant, the roasting summer sun shines proudly with an intensity that seems stronger than it ever has in centuries. Or, in the case of the houseguest, louder than he’s ever been since those rowdy college parties.
The summer in Tampa isn’t all bad, though. One of the most enjoyable parts about this time of year is the non-mammal wildlife. The abundant reptile population is thriving in the blazing sun, and you can find minuscule baby lizards darting and dashing around your feet whenever you near a plant or building.
And this year, we have had the both incredible and incredibly annoying experience of a baby bird who left the nest but is not quite ready to be on her own quite yet make a halfway house of our yard. She hops and hobbles along the fence on both sides of our home, which is delightful to watch. But then she also constantly calls out for her mother, who alights every now and then to feed her a worm or other insect morsel. I’m not sure what this says about me, but I legitimately stood by the window watching this fluffy-feathered bird for a solid twenty minutes after dinner last night. And I can still hear its desperate cries for more food as I type these words.
Then there are the other animal sightings, the ones that immediately make me feel as though the universe is again sending me signs of what to do, or in this case, not do.
Earlier this week, I had a peculiarly long encounter with a crow. It was in the street, ostensibly swooping down to peck at something tasty, but it was standing still. It stared directly at me, maintaining an uncomfortable eye contact with its blue-black eyes. Of course, being an admirer of birds, I didn’t mind it so much. Its shiny, deep purple feathers were immensely pleasing to look at, when I could finally break eye contact to notice them, anyway. And I loved how its smooth head and body were completely devoid of any speck or grit that might interrupt the beauty its dark shape brought to the street.
Of course, after this strange interaction I immediately searched “crow symbolism,” and I learned that the crow represents “mystery of creation” and “personal transformation.” Between that and the teenaged bird chirping in my ear, I’ll take these as biased signs from the universe that I am on the right track.
Much of the personal transformation I’ve been experiencing lately has convinced me that I cannot control outcomes. It also unfortunately seems that resisting the energy drawing (or pushing) me one way or another will only serve to drive me mad. So, perhaps the summer’s lazy influence isn’t such a bad thing right now. Perhaps like the young adult bird, the time will soon come when I will be flung into a set career track, but for the moment, I should listen to what the universe is telling me and lie still enough so that I can be pushed.
That’s easier said that done, especially for someone who has worked her whole life to try and control the things that matter most to her. I don’t know about you, but I tend to really struggle with this concept in practice. In theory, it makes total sense; I’m completely on board with letting go. But when I reflect on my actions and thoughts, even at the end of a single day, I find I’m woefully underperforming on integrating this into my everyday life.
Fortunately for us, I think this week’s purpose-driven life can serve as a tangible example of how “going with the flow” and listening to the cues sent to us can be the key to finding and living our dharma. This week, we will examine the life of Ella Fitzgerald, one of the most popular jazz singers of all time whose powerful voice and recognizable recordings transcend time and genre. What can Fitzgerald’s life teach us about fighting to find our purpose? Let’s explore together.
Ella Fitzgerald was born in 1917 in Newport News, Virginia. Her parents were never married, and while they stayed together for a few years, they separated when Fitzgerald was only 2 1/2 years old. Her mother then began dating a Portuguese man, and they moved together to Yonkers, New York when she was young.
When she was six years old, Fitzgerald’s half sister was born. That same year, she also began attending school in her neighborhood, which was largely made up of low income Italian families. To provide for their family, her stepfather dug ditches and worked as a chauffeur, and her mother worked at a laundromat. Fitzgerald also helped support her family by taking odd jobs here and there, which included unknowingly running money for local gamblers on her street.
Fitzgerald was an excellent student as a child, but she was also well-rounded in her interests and activities. She loved dancing from an early age, listened to any jazz record she could get her hands on, and even joined the neighborhood kids in playing baseball. When she was old enough, Fitzgerald often took the train to Harlem with the friends to the famed Apollo Theater to see singers, dancers, and other performers.
Then, a terrible tragedy struck Fitzgerald and her family when her beloved mother died in a car accident. Only 15 years old, Fitzgerald was heartbroken with grief. She continued to live in her stepfather’s home, but rumored abusive treatment led her to leave and begin living with a nearby aunt. Shortly after that, her stepfather also passed away from a heart attack. Her younger sister came to live with her aunt as well, but Fitzgerald struggled tremendously as a result of these losses.
Around that time, Fitzgerald started skipping classes, working as a lookout for a brothel, and getting involved with a Mafia numbers operation. She ended up getting caught by the police and was sent to two different reform schools, one in the Bronx and one in upstate New York. She was beaten by caretakers and subjected to abusive conditions in the reformatory system, but she managed to escape and make her way back to Harlem, where she lived on her own and got by performing in the streets.
At the age of 17, Fitzgerald was selected in a lottery to perform at one of the earliest amateur nights at the Apollo Theater. In 1934, she took to the stage with plans to perform a dance number for the crowd. However, after dancing duo the Edwards Sisters closed the main show, Fitzgerald was certain her dancing wouldn’t live up to their performance. As she recalled, “They were the dancingest sisters around.”
Instead, she walked on stage and stood in silence for a few seconds as the amped-up crowd booed and murmured impatiently. In that moment, Fitzgerald let go of her plans and let her natural gift effortlessly flow through her. She began singing “Judy,” a song she knew well because it was one of her mother’s favorites. The crowd quieted down quickly, and by the end, they were was shocked and awed by her talent. Demanding an encore, the crowd cheered her on as she sang, “The Object of My Affection,” a song made popular in the 1930s by her mother’s favorite singer. In that fateful moment, the universe revealed Fitzgerald’s purpose to her.
“Once up there, I felt the acceptance and love from my audience. I knew I wanted to sing before people the rest of my life.”-Fitzgerald
That night at the Apollo forever changed Fitzgerald’s life and trajectory. She began entering and winning talent shows, and she won the chance to sing with the Tiny Bradshaw Band at the Harlem Opera House. There, she met Chick Webb, a famous band leader and jazz musician. Through that opportunity, she got a gig traveling and singing with his band for $12.50 per week.
The next year, Fitzgerald recorded her first song. It was moderately successful, and she began performing at “The World’s Famous Ballroom,” the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. Taking cues from the changing music scene around her, Fitzgerald then recorded her second song, “You Have to Swing It” in the newly popular bebop style. On this record, she intentionally used her voice as another horn in the ensemble, and she also experimented with scat singing for the first time. These inventive talents would become her calling card as a singer and performer.
In 1938 when she was 21 years old, Fitzgerald recorded “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” a playful take on the nursery rhyme. Selling over one million copies, the album was a number one hit and and is still one of her most famous recordings. With this song, Fitzgerald became a household name.
A year later, Chick Webb passed away, and so Fitzgerald took his place as bandleader. Renamed, “Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Orchestra,” Fitzgerald and her band recorded 150 songs over the next seven years while performing across the country.
In the late 1940s, Fitzgerald then signed with a new manager who helped usher her into the spotlight as a jazz singer. She performed with the “Jazz at the Philharmonic” tour, recorded and sang with Louis Armstrong, and started producing her now-famous songbook series. In this series, which she recorded from 1956-1964, includes covers of songs by Cole Porter, the Gershwins, and Duke Ellington. The series was incredibly popular, and even Ira Gershwin remarked, “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.”
During that time, she also counted Marilyn Monroe as among her most ardent fans. She credited Monroe for getting her first gig at the Mocambo, a popular nightclub. As Fitzgerald explained, “[Monroe] personally called the owner of the Mocambo and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him – and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status – that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night.”
Fitzgerald embarked on world tours, made appearances in television and movies, and appeared in commercials. She endured blatant racism throughout her journey, but it was especially egregious while she was on tour. While on the road with the Philharmonic, her white manager, who was a staunch believer in having all of his musicians treated equally, angered one venue in Dallas with his demands for equality. The police there responded by raiding Fitzgerald’s room and arresting everyone, as Dizzie Gillespie and others were playing dice. Fitzgerald recalled, “They took us down, and then when we got there, they had the nerve to ask for an autograph.”
Fitzgerald also was prevented from performing two shows in Australia because of racism when she and other Black musicians were ordered to leave their first class seats on a plane headed to Sydney from Honolulu without reason. The airline staff would not let them re-board the flight or even get their luggage, so they were stuck in Hawaii for three days with nothing. Even though the airline claimed in the press that the order wasn’t racially motivated, Fitzgerald and her crew later sued for discrimination and won.
“I guess what everyone wants more than anything else is to be loved. And to know that you loved me for my singing is too much for me. Forgive me if I don’t have all the words. Maybe I can sing it and you’ll understand.”-Fitzgerald
Throughout the 1970s and early 80s, Fitzgerald continued touring across the globe, even as her health declined. She received Kennedy Center Honors for her contribution to the arts, the National Medal of Arts from President Reagan, and honorary doctorates from Yale, Dartmouth, and other universities. In 1991 after experiencing years of health complications, Ella Fitzgerald gave her final performance at Carnegie Hall. She passed away in 1996 at the age of 79 in her home in Beverly Hills.
Ella Fitzgerald’s story is one of extraordinary talent, luck, and adaptability. Her long-running career started as a fluke when she literally won the lottery to appear on stage at the Apollo, and her meteoric rise came because of her ability to change and follow the path that was right for her. A path some might argue was set for her.
When she was on that stage at 17, she could have steamrolled fate by insisting that she perform the dance she had practiced and perfected. Instead, Fitzgerald read the room, took in the cues that she was given, and surrendered. Expectations shattered, she could only focus on the present moment–not the outcome–a critical key for her true purpose to shine through.
Fitzgerald wasn’t just an amazing singer, though. She was born with a gift for singing, but the full expression of her dharma came when she permitted herself to be lead in different directions. She openly embraced the change in musical taste when the big swing band era of her early career ended and bebop and jazz started gaining momentum. She also followed advice to lean into the outlets where she could shine the most brightly. Fitzgerald successfully followed the current of her life, even as the rapids pushed her back and forth with changing times and personal challenges.
So, what can we learn from Ella Fitzgerald’s fight to find her purpose of creating new art forms with her voice and bringing lasting life to many of the best-written songs of all time? First and foremost, I think we can agree that based on her experience, we must always be on the lookout for opportunities through which to channel our gifts and talents, especially if they’re unexpected. If Fitzgerald hadn’t done so at the Apollo, then she might never have become the renowned singer we all know her to have been.
However, it wasn’t just her willingness to put herself out there that sets Fitzgerald’s story apart; it was her ability to then set her ego aside and follow the path that was right for her. So, I think the greater takeaway is that when we do get that opportunity, we must let go of the outcome and surrender to the path that is set forth for us.
Fitzgerald could have insisted on continuing to perform the swing music she was comfortable with, or she could have avoided experimentation with her vocal style, or she could have refused to record songs that were already so well-known and loved. But she didn’t. She took in the information that the universe (or God, or whatever) was giving her, and she chose to follow the guidance that it/he/she was sending. And in the end, it meant a lasting legacy and songbook that will continue to be enjoyed for generations to come.
Of course, it’s easy to say this in hindsight. At the time, I have to imagine Fitzgerald was nervous about making the right decisions in her career and in her life. After all, she was divorced at least twice, if not three times based on some accounts. But that’s because Fitzgerald was human, just like us.
So, if Fitzgerald could give up control in the face of a rowdy crowd booing her at the Apollo, then maybe you and I can consciously look for those comparable places in our lives where we can let go a little and allow our natural instincts to take over.
Based on the strong message I’ve been getting from the Florida summer, it seems like it might be time to stop trying to force things to happen and instead embrace the discomfort, channel my energy into what comes most naturally to me, and make peace with a state of constant sweatiness. What about you?
And then, if we all can follow Fitzgerald’s lead and let go, perhaps the path to a fulfilling life will also appear before us when we least expect it.