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Rare Photo of Ella Fitzgerald Goes On Display at Smithsonian

In celebration of the legendary jazz singer's 100th birthday, the National Portrait Gallery releases rare photo of Ella Fitzgerald.
Image: Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and Ray Brown (with Milt Jackson).Mark Gulezian/NPG

The National Portrait Gallery unveiled a stunning photograph of American jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, often referred to as "The First Lady of Song," on Thursday. At first glance it looks like just another image of the icon caught up in the melody of a song, but a closer look reveals a brief moment of discord between the players.

The picture was taken around 1947 by the late William Gottlieb, who learned to use a camera to take pictures to accompany his weekly music column for The Washington Post. The photograph shows Ella in performance with Ray Brown playing upright bass, while trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and vibraphonist Milt Jackson look on in wonder.

Ed Gottlieb recalls his father telling him the story behind that frame. Ella was actually in the audience to hear her then boyfriend Brown perform with his band but as expected, everyone wanted to hear her sing. Once she took the stage, Gottlieb got into position to get his shot.

“My father loved Dizzy and saw him halfway in the frame before he took the picture so he nudged him a little bit. Dizzy moved into the frame and struck this pose looking in awe of Ella. Brown saw this and got jealous, which is why he looks sour,” Gottlieb said. “If I had to describe this photo in three words it would be, ‘Everyone Loves Ella.’ My father always said she just made everyone’s music sound good.”

Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and Ray Brown (with Milt Jackson).Mark Gulezian/NPG

The portrait is on display ahead of the 100th anniversary of Fitzgerald's birth. Fitzgerald, who died in 1996 at the age of 79, would have celebrated her 100th birthday April 25.

Ann M. Shumard, Senior Curator of Photographs at the National Press Gallery says the photo provides a unique perspective of Fitzgerald caught in the moment as a jazz singer.

"It is a wonderful example of William P. Gottlieb's signature jazz photography and captures the magic of a performance that brought Fitzgerald together with jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, and Milt Jackson—all of whom appear in this photograph," Shumard said in a statement to NBCBLK.

The photo was given to the museum as a gift from Lisa Ruthel and Anup Mahurkar. It's the first time the photograph has been displayed at the museum.

"As Lisa explained in her e-mail, 'We live in DC and love the idea of supporting the Smithsonian and having our photo stay local!' Needless to say, the Portrait Gallery's answer was a resounding 'YES,'" said Shumard. "We love the photograph and are immensely grateful to Lisa and Anup for their generosity."

The photograph can be seen in the "Celebrate" space of the gallery through May 14.