Ella at the gala: Ella Fitzgerald's performance at the Kennedy Inaugural Gala

By intern Corey Schmidt
Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald sit in front of a microphone

Within the Ella Fitzgerald Papers collection, a hidden gem reveals a surprising connection between Fitzgerald and President John F. Kennedy's inauguration. On January 19, 1961, at the National Armory in Washington, D.C., stars gathered to celebrate John F. Kennedy's inauguration. The Inaugural Gala brought together many of the leading performers of the day including Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Gene Kelly, and Harry Belafonte. Ella Fitzgerald was among them and her participation exemplified her accomplishments as an artist and performer.

Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald sit in front of a microphone in performance dress. Frank looks like he has just said something and Ella sits impassively

Considered a great American jazz vocalist, Fitzgerald began singing at an early age. She gained popularity through her ability to blend musical styles such as ballads and jazz. As her popularity increased, she became a frequent guest on The Frank Sinatra ShowThe Ed Sullivan Show, and The Tonight Show. Frank Sinatra, in particular, greatly respected her talents and collaborated with her on numerous occasions. By 1961 she had recorded several albums with other musicians such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. Her performance at the Kennedy Inaugural Gala was indicative of her national recognition as a respected vocalist.

A page from a script from the gala that shows lines for Fitzgerald and others to say or sing

Sinatra began planning the Inaugural Gala after Kennedy's victory and invited Fitzgerald to perform. In addition to inviting Fitzgerald, Belafonte, Kelly, and Cole, Sinatra also invited several other performing artists, such as Bette Davis, Leonard Bernstein, and Sidney Poitier. During the performance, all the artists praised Kennedy's victory, and Fitzgerald commented on how close the election was, singing, "But then at last, the night had passed and the die was cast, and it was close."

The purpose of the gala was not just to attract many famous artists and praise Kennedy's victory. Its practical purpose was to raise funds to help pay off the costs incurred by the Democratic Party during John F. Kennedy's campaign. At the end of the show, over $1.7 million was raised, and Kennedy personally praised Sinatra along with all the performers for their outstanding efforts and talents.

A formal invitation written in cursive for Ella Fitzgerald from the President and Vice President to attend the Inaugural Gala

The Archives Center's Ella Fitzgerald collection is available for research use. The finding aid is a good place for researchers to start. If you would like to research this collection in person, please feel free to email the Archives Center at archivescenter@si.edu or give us a call (202) 633-3270.

Want to learn more about the American experience through the transformative power of jazz? The museum’s Smithsonian Jazz team strongly recommends you check out their website to explore our jazz oral history collection, get tickets to performances by the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month, and more. Or sign up to receive a monthly jazz e-newsletter from the museum for regular reminders.

Corey Schmidt is a recent graduate of Truman State University, and his major is history. Edited by Rebecca Kuske, a senior at University of Wisconsin-Parkside, Joe Hursey, Reference Coordinator and Associate Curator, and Wendy Shay, Supervisor Museum Curator and Audio-Video Specialist at the Archives Center.

Fitzgerald's legacy continues through the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, which established the Jazz Appreciation Month Endowment Fund in 2013 to support the annual, month-long, international JAM celebration coordinated by the museum.