Becoming Ella Fitzgerald

The Jazz Singer Who Transformed American Song

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Pub Date 05 Dec 2023 | Archive Date 30 Nov 2023

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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

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...

Advance Praise

"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

"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...

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ISBN 9780393241051
PRICE $40.00 (USD)

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Featured Reviews

This is a thoroughly researched and well-written biography of Ella Fitzgerald. The focus is clearly on the music as the author chronicles the musicians and songs for each recording session, concert tour, and television appearance. The in depth research includes contemporary reviews of concerts and recordings, including from previously low circulation African American publications. A secondary focus of the book is the racial, gender, and genre discrimination that Ella Fitzgerald faced as a black female jazz singer. Although the amount of detail made it a somewhat dry at times, the information was so interesting and fascinating that it didn't detract from my enjoyment . Highly recommended

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Thank you, W.W. Norton & Company and NetGalley, for this eARC. "Becoming Ella Fitzgerald" was beautifully written and captured the essence of Fitzgerald's life and career. When singing jazz, Ella Fitzgerald learned to navigate between two worlds (Black and White). Fitzgerald fared far better in the European markets, selling out shows than in the United States due to racism. However, she still held popularity among the African-American community. Fitzgerald has remained in the music industry for over six decades due to the changing musical styles of singers.

I would rate this book 9/10. It is a remarkable compilation of Ella's life and significant historical moments. The author, Judith Tick, presents the story in a historical context that is comprehensible to readers and is particularly appealing to those who have not heard of Ella Fitzgerald and other notable singers such as Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, and Dizzy Gillespie.

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