Becoming Ella Fitzgerald: The Jazz Singer Who Transformed American Song (Hardcover)
An NPR 2023 "Books We Love" Pick
A landmark biography that reclaims Ella Fitzgerald as a major American artist and modernist innovator.
Ella Fitzgerald (1917–1996) possessed one of the twentieth century’s most astonishing voices. In this first major biography since Fitzgerald’s death, historian Judith Tick offers a sublime portrait of this ambitious risk-taker whose exceptional musical spontaneity made her a transformational artist.
Becoming Ella Fitzgerald clears up long-enduring mysteries. Archival research and in-depth family interviews shed new light on the singer’s difficult childhood in Yonkers, New York, the tragic death of her mother, and the year she spent in a girls’ reformatory school—where she sang in its renowned choir and dreamed of being a dancer. Rarely seen profiles from the Black press offer precious glimpses of Fitzgerald’s tense experiences of racial discrimination and her struggles with constricting models of Black and white femininity at midcentury.
Tick’s compelling narrative depicts Fitzgerald’s complicated career in fresh and original detail, upending the traditional view that segregates vocal jazz from the genre’s mainstream. As she navigated the shifting tides between jazz and pop, she used her originality to pioneer modernist vocal jazz. Interpreting long-lost setlists, reviews from both white and Black newspapers, and newly released footage and recordings, the book explores how Ella’s transcendence as an improvisor produced onstage performances every bit as significant as her historic recorded oeuvre.
From the singer’s first performance at the Apollo Theatre’s famous “Amateur Night” to the Savoy Ballroom, where Fitzgerald broke through with Chick Webb’s big band in the 1930s, Tick evokes the jazz world in riveting detail. She describes how Ella helped shape the bebop movement in the 1940s, as she joined Dizzy Gillespie and her then-husband, Ray Brown, in the world-touring Jazz at the Philharmonic, one of the first moments of high-culture acceptance for the disreputable art form.
Breaking ground as a female bandleader, Fitzgerald refuted expectations of musical Blackness, deftly balancing artistic ambition and market expectations. Her legendary exploration of the Great American Songbook in the 1950s fused a Black vocal aesthetic and jazz improvisation to revolutionize the popular repertoire. This hybridity often confounded critics, yet throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Ella reached audiences around the world, electrifying concert halls, and sold millions of records.
A masterful biography, Becoming Ella Fitzgerald describes a powerful woman who set a standard for American excellence nearly unmatched in the twentieth century.
About the Author
Judith Tick is professor emerita of music history at Northeastern University. She has published award-winning books and articles about American music and women’s history in music, including Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer’s Search for American Music. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Ella Fitzgerald made becoming a great artist seem effortless. She hid her will, her drive, and her originality behind the mask of a modest, soft-spoken woman. Now, at last, Judith Tick shows exactly how Fitzgerald explored and shaped every form of American popular music. In the process she thwarted all the boundaries of class, race, and gender that threatened to confine her. Tick’s musical knowledge is impeccable; so are her reporting and her scholarship. 'I won’t be left behind,' Fitzgerald used to vow. This stirringly complete biography ensures that she never will be.
— Margo Jefferson, author of Constructing a Nervous System
In this radiant, rich, no-stone-unturned biography, Judith Tick shows us how Ella Fitzgerald ‘became’ not only one of America’s greatest vocalists but a brilliant innovator who forever changed the status of ‘the female singer’ in her time and beyond.
— Paula J. Giddings, author of Ida: A Sword Among Lions
Becoming Ella Fitzgerald is a treasure—a comprehensive, deeply researched, and documented biography that finally gives Ella the complexity and depth that she deserves. Placing Fitzgerald in the intersection of race and gender at mid-twentieth century and overturning often repeated half-truths about her life and career, Tick highlights the beauty and artistry of Fitzgerald’s voice and the full range of her genre-crossing career. Becoming Ella Fitzgerald is essential reading for anyone interested in the Ella, jazz, or American popular culture.
— Ingrid Monson, author of Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call Out to Jazz and Africa
[Tick] exposes speculation, fills fissures with fact, and finds a fresh feminist heroine of transformative authority.
— John McDonough, senior contributor, Down Beat
More than a decade in the making, Becoming Ella Fitzgerald is a biography truly worthy of the ‘First Lady of Song’.
— Ricky Riccardi, Grammy-winning author of What a Wonderful World
Remarkable.… [O]pens up whole areas of her story that have seldom been explored in print, and in the process reveals a woman whose exceptional artistry infused a bewildering variety of material with a touch of genius.
— Alyn Shipton, host of BBC jazz programs and research fellow at the Royal Academy of Music
At last, we know where Ella came from and how she became our beloved First Lady of Song. Becoming Ella Fitzgerald is a first-rate job of research and a great read.
— Dan Morgenstern, director emeritus, Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University
Judith Tick’s much-needed updated biography uses new research and keen musicology, and brings forth a revealing and fully convincing portrait of Lady Ella as visionary, social activist, and still-modern singer.
— John Szwed, author of Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth
A magisterial biography...rendered in luxuriant prose.... This is a superior addition to the shelf on America’s jazz legends.
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)
[A] comprehensive and fascinating biography of an American music titan….Essential for casual fans of jazz and music history and Fitzgerald aficionados alike, this thoroughly impressive work will be hard to equal. As masterful and wonderful as its subject.
— Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Tick illuminates the artist and her experiences with precision, insight, and fluency…. A defining, revelatory, and invaluable biography.
— Donna Seaman - Booklist (starred review)