Ella Fitzgerald’s legendary singing voice was full of unparalleled clarity and rhythmic drive. Her gifts awed her contemporaries, and since Fitzgerald’s prime, new generations have gratefully discovered her genius.
However, since Fitzgerald’s 1996 death, no book has treated her life comprehensively. Occasional documentaries, essays, and tribute albums have paid homage to Fitzgerald, but no project of such ambition has appeared until the 2023 release of Becoming Ella Fitzgerald: The Jazz Singer Who Transformed American Song.
Music historian Judith Tick’s biography is the first major book on Fitzgerald and one of the most anticipated works on jazz in decades. Becoming Ella Fitzerald effectively reclaims the greatness of an American musical treasure.
Like many music icons, the cultural memory of Fitzerald is often stuck in definitions of what kind of music she made and how she made it, but as the book’s title suggests, she was always on the move, coming into her own as the world and the times changed, and her music reflected those shifts. Much of Becoming Ella Fitzerald justifiably concerns itself with myth-busting. Tick’s work corrects much of the public’s image surrounding the First Lady of Song, including key moments in her career, her image of passive amiability, and her underappreciated political involvement. In one crucial example, Tick argues that an Opera House appearance in 1935 was far more important than the supposedly career-launching moment at the Apollo Theater Amateur Night the year before.
From her subsequent early years with bandleader Chick Webb’s orchestra to her immersion in the bop stylings of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and beyond, Fitzgerald’s musical eclecticism has nonetheless rarely been so well documented, including with her forays into rock, country, and soul styles in the 1960s and after.
Becoming Ella Fitzgerald also focuses on Fitzgerald’s relationships with her family and fellow musicians and showcases a wide range of discourse on Fitzgerald’s work, including musicians and critics comparing her to Billie Holiday. In multiple instances, Tick quotes Fitzgerald as seeing herself as a ballad singer, contrasting with critics’ image of her as displaying “a lack of emotional intelligence” around ballads.
Tick proves Fitzgerald’s assertiveness in many instances in her life and career, including her relationship with manager Norman Granz and her involvement in political causes. Such examples provide a welcome corrective to much of her public image as humble to the point of docility.
The exhaustive research, bolstered by unprecedented access to archives, is obvious, and Tick adds much to the literature on Fitzgerald and jazz. Duke Ellington famously called Fitzgerald “beyond category”, and Tick argues for jazz as a process rather than a static style, showing how Fitzgerald crossed musical and cultural boundaries throughout her life.
Reading Becoming Ella Fitzgerald is greatly illuminating. I appreciate how Tick explores the recording process on albums I have enjoyed for decades, including her Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book (1956) and Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book (1957). Tick also writes convincingly of the musical and historical importance of Fitzgerald as both a singles (as opposed to albums) artist early in her career and how that changed in the ’50s, starting with her first full-length LP, Ella Sings Gershwin, recorded for and released on Decca Records.
While I would have appreciated more analysis of those recordings and others, as a biography, Becoming Ella Fitzgerald is an excellent book that expanded my view of one of music’s greatest singers. I highly recommend this biography, especially when read in conjunction with exciting contemporary work by other scholars and critics, including Margo Jefferson’s emphasis on Fitzgerald’s labor and physicality in the essay “Diaphoresis” (published in 2022 in This Woman’s Work: Essays on Music, edited by Sinéad Gleeson and Kim Gordon). Remaking Ella Fitzgerald’s image is hopefully a continual process of becoming, and Becoming Ella Fitzgerald certainly plays a major role in that good and necessary work.