cover image Becoming Ella Fitzgerald: The Jazz Singer Who Transformed American Song

Becoming Ella Fitzgerald: The Jazz Singer Who Transformed American Song

Judith Tick. Norton, $40 (656p) ISBN 978-0-3932-4105-1

Tick (Ruth Crawford Seeger), a professor emerita of music history at Northeastern University, delivers a magisterial biography of singer Ella Fitzgerald (1917–1996), who “fearlessly explored... different styles of American song through the lens of African American jazz.” Fitzgerald grew up in Yonkers, N.Y., performing for classmates in the schoolyard and listening to the Mills Brothers and Boswell Sisters, groups that proved “prophetic” for the singer’s development “because they treated the voice as a human instrument.” At 15, Fitzgerald gave her earliest public performance at the Yonkers Federation of Negro Clubs; three years later, she officially began her recording career. “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” her “swinging rendition” of the children’s nursery rhyme, kicked off her ascent to stardom in 1938, and her career blossomed thanks to her ambition and willingness to mix different musical styles, from swing to bebop to pop. Though Fitzgerald was sometimes faulted by jazz critics for blending jazz and pop standards, her music (and characteristic vocal elements such as scat singing) remained popular with audiences and helped shape the evolution of jazz in America. Drawing on archival research and animated by genuine passion for her subject, Tick paints a detailed portrait of an artist whose willingness to reinvent herself galvanized her career. It’s rendered in luxuriant prose that brings Fitzgerald’s “glass-shattering high notes” and “lustrous beguiling voice” to life. The result is an excellent addition to the shelf on America’s jazz legends. (Dec.)