In a January 1955 article titled “New Life for U.S. Jazz,” LIFE magazine noted that the genre’s popularity was growing faster than almost any other form of music (the Elvis-fueled rock and roll explosion was still roughly a year away) and celebrated jazz’s surging appeal with a series of color portraits featuring jazz greats.
To the delight of an enlarging audience dedicated to the loudest of the lively arts, jazz is having the biggest time of its 60-odd-year life. . . . To the two main schools of American jazz — New Orleans and Chicago — another has been added: the West Coast school, whose audience has grown so quickly that a record album by West Coaster Dave Brubeck has outsold any put out by Liberace last fall. On these pages LIFE’s Eliot Elisofon has assembled some of the giants of jazz in portraits conceived to capture the characteristic contribution of each to the lusty heritage of American music.
Now at its peak, jazz stands half in the great hot past and half in the promising future of “cool” counterpoint and heady harmonics. Its fans see and hear the ranking players at work in small clubs and big concerts. But it is largely the records, selling at seven times the rate they were selling five years ago, that have given jazz the widest audience in ts lavish history.
(Notably excluded from the portrait sessions: Miles Davis who, by the time Elisofon was creating these portraits in 1954, was acknowledged as a major player in the genre but was not yet the dominant — indeed, the defining — force in jazz that he was to become, alone and with the the likes of both Bill Evans and Gil Evans, in the later 1950s and the early 1960s.)
Here, on Ella Fitzgerald’s birthday (she was born in Newport News, Va., on April 25, 1917), LIFE.com celebrates the one and only Queen of Jazz and other musical legends, as seen through Eliot Elisofon’s singular lens.