The Great Ella Fitzgerald

The Great Ella Fitzgerald

Some books grab you and won’t let go, such as The Mysterious Case of Rudolf Diesel, which I reviewed recently. 

Becoming Ella Fitzgerald, a new biography by Judith Tick, isn’t like that at all. It just steps you through the events in the life of Fitzgerald, one of the great jazz singers of our time. Very simple. Nothing fancy. And yet I found it mesmerizing. 

Tick, through years of exhaustive research, enables us to walk beside Ella as a child, young woman, and mature artist, learning details of her musical explorations and performances over a fifty-year period. The amount of information is staggering, and perhaps not of interest to everyone; but to me, tracing the names and styles and collaborations with virtually every great twentieth-century jazz artist was thrilling, and provided just the kind of portrait I had hoped for.

Of Fitzgerald’s almost countless recordings, my favorites have always been her Song Book series, produced by Norman Granz. These present the music of Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Rodgers & Hart, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, and Johnny Mercer, beautifully scored by Nelson Riddle, Billy May, Billy Strayhorn, Buddy Bregman, and other leading arrangers. These recordings, as a group, helped lay the foundations for what we now call the Great American Songbook. 

Along the way, we learn about Fitzgerald’s personal qualities and idiosyncrasies, including a surprising and profound lack of confidence and a need to please others. We read about the female jazz singers who came up alongside her: Sarah Vaughan, Lena Horne, Etta James, and most famously Billie Holiday, shown below, whose style was radically different and yet was constantly compared with Fitzgerald’s.

How sad that many white jazz critics found it necessary to measure Ella by Billie’s standards, which were a world apart. Here were two great artists, fans of each other, who had different dreams and goals. 

Tick goes a long way to correct these misapprehensions by diving deep into articles and reviews from the African American press of the time, which more frequently evaluated Black jazz and jazz artists on their own terms, not by white measuring sticks. 

This is a simple, deep, detailed journey into Ella Fitzgerald’s life—not for everyone, but for me, worth every minute.


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