LAST night was special for one of America's national treasures - jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald. Musicians and dancers who have known and worked with her were scheduled to gather here at Avery Fisher Hall to pay homage to the ``First Lady of Song'' in a Valentine tribute called ``Hearts for Ella.''
Hosted by Lena Horne, Itzhak Perlman, Benny Carter, and the Manhattan Transfer, the program featured musical valentines for Ms. Fitzgerald from friends and admirers like George Shearing, Linda Ronstadt, Cab Calloway, Andr'e Previn, Dizzy Gillespie, Jessye Norman, Savion Glover, Honi Coles and the Copasetics, and Bobby McFerrin.
Fitzgerald, who was born in 1918, has witnessed virtually the whole history of jazz in America, much of it since her debut as a singer in the 1930s. She has also earned a reputation as one of the swingingest, mellowest, hippest singers in the business. Her warm voice and superb scat vocals have been heard in thousands of performances and recordings.
But her entrance into the world of music was less than auspicious. The little girl from Yonkers had aspirations to be a dancer and worked at it until she was able to get a spot on amateur night at Harlem's legendary Apollo Theater.
But, as the story goes, she was so nervous she couldn't move. So she sang instead. By the last of her three encores, she had won first prize.
The road remained bumpy for young Ella, though, until quite a bit later. That night at the Apollo, band leader Benny Carter heard and liked her. He told talent scout John Hammond about her, and Hammond tried to find a spot for her in the Fletcher Henderson or Chick Webb bands. But neither band leader was interested in any ``girl singer.''
Fitzgerald persisted and got her first big break singing at the Harlem Opera House. As she tells it, Chick Webb's band was playing there, too, though he was adamant that he didn't want a female vocalist. Some of the guys in his band, however, ecorted her into his dressing room and forced him to listen to her. The result was a job and a lasting friendship.
In 1938, Fitzgerald wrote and sang ``A Tisket, a Tasket,'' which became the hit that really launched her career.
IN the decades since, she has sustained her reputation as one of the greatest voices in American popular music. Her series of recordings known as ``The Ella Fitzgerald Songbooks'' - including albums devoted to the music of George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Duke Ellington, and Cole Porter - have become an intrinsic part of jazz history.
At the tribute, Benny Carter conducted an orchestra featuring such Fitzgerald colleagues as saxophonists James Moody and Phil Woods; trumpeters Red Rodney, Clark Terry, Harry ``Sweets'' Edison, and Jon Faddis; trombonists Slide Hampton, Urbie Green, and Herb Ellis. The orchestra premi`ered a Carter composition written for the occasion.
Fifteen-year-old tap dancer Savion Glover danced to ``A Tisket, a Tasket'' and traded off rhythms with drummer Louis Bellson. And there was a rare performance of Duke Ellington's own valentine for Ella, ``All Heart,'' with lyrics adapted for the tribute.
Fitzgerald herself is an active performer. She will give three concerts in London on March 5, 7, and 8, and will later tour the US. Her newest (as yet untitled) record album will be released soon on the Fantasy label.