Ella Fitzgerald, who sings love ballads daintily, can roar on like a trombone through a jazz classic.
Caption from LIFE. "Ella Fitzgerald, who sings love ballads daintily, can roar like a trombone through a jazz classic."Eliot Elisofon—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Ella Fitzgerald, who sings love ballads daintily, can roar on like a trombone through a jazz classic.
With his trumpet glowing like a hot coal, Louis Armstrong first ripped into jazz in New Orleans 37 years ago .... [He is] a superb musician and a clear spellbinder.
Louis Armstrong plays the trumpet, 1954.
From deft work at the piano, Nat King Cole slipped successfully into singing. He is more gifted with jazz wisdom than with a voice, but his ingenuity and sure beat give added distinction to his songs.
John Coltrane, 1954.
Jazz tunes of simplest sort get embellished into complexity by Errol Garner, a pianist who lets the melody in his right hand lag behind rhythm in his left. He sounds at times like a one-man two-piano team.
The most severe sounds in modern jazz were first heard on West Coast from Gerry Mulligan's baritone saxophone. At his best he plays like three players in one, seeming in his free-for-all manner to be playing complex triple counterpoint against himself.
Jazz sounds its best when seen, and it is best seen when Gene Krupa breaks into a drum solo. Though two generations of teenagers have hailed his theatrics, Krupa's techniques have had a profound influence on all professionals.
Oscar Peterson, 1954.
By keeping the beat sharp and the complex embellishments clean, Oscar Peterson, a constantly nodding 265-pound pianist with a light touch, established a style that departs from 'barrel house,' moving toward modern jazz.
Duke Ellington, 1954.
Called 'the Prez' by other saxophone players, Lester Young was one of the early experimenters with his frenetic off-the-beat style of 'cool' jazz. But what connoisseurs come to hear mostly is Young's effortless virtuosity on the tenor sax.
Dave Brubeck, 1954.
Most popular of all the new jazzmen, pianist Dave Brubeck developed his style with the West Coast school. Here, shaking his head as he loses himself in free-form harmonies of music, he is circled by coworkers Paul Desmond, Joe Dodge and Bob Bates.
Chet Baker with his band, 1954.
Ella Fitzgerald, the Queen of Jazz, 1954.
Caption from LIFE. "Ella Fitzgerald, who sings love ballads daintily, can roar like a trombone through a jazz classic."
Eliot Elisofon—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
1 of 17

Ella and Friends: Portraits of the Queen of Jazz and Other Greats

Apr 14, 2014

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.

All products and services featured are based solely on editorial selection. TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website.