In Becoming Ella Fitzgerald (Norton, Dec.), Tick gives due to the jazz singer’s vocal gifts and musical versatility.
What prompted this book?
I wrote it because I was fascinated with the connection between music and life. I was fascinated by the ways an artist expresses herself in her performance—the way she moves, the way she dances—not just what she sings. I got the seed for it in 2005 when I was putting together an anthology, Music in the USA, and I found a piece by Oscar Peterson that praised Ella. While writing, I benefited from access to her family: her son, Ray Brown Jr., entrusted me with a scrapbook she kept when she was 18, in which she clipped articles from DownBeat, Metronome, and the Pittsburgh Courier, the leading Black paper at the time, about artists she admired and about herself. It was amazing to hold what she’d started at that age.
Can you describe what you mean by “becoming Ella Fitzgerald”?
I mean the process by which she came to cultivate her own gift. Ella was born with a magnificent voice—a “hundred year voice,” as one writer called it. Over time she came to understand the raw talent with which she could transform any song, and began to cultivate the responsibility that came with it, though she remained humble. When she performed, she wanted to please: if she sang to an audience of 10,000 people, for example, and she noticed that one person in the front rows was disappointed, she took it as her fault.
What obstacles did Fitzgerald face in cultivating her gift?
There is a stereotype that her manager Norman Granz directed her career, but while she respected him, Ella knew her path and sang the kinds of songs she wanted to sing. She faced hostility from critics in the 1960s who thought she wasn’t jazz enough to be considered jazz or pop enough to be considered pop. There has long been an attitude among jazz critics that singers are second-class citizens in the jazz world. Most jazz singers are and were women, so the more the singers were denigrated, the more women in jazz were marginalized.
What picture of Ella do you hope readers take from the book?
Ella wasn’t singing for one public but for as many people as she could possibly reach. She wouldn’t be left behind in her music, and wanted to continue to reach young people. Ella was a great improviser and continually reinvented herself as she performed various styles of music. She sang standards—in her Song Books series—that respected the entire oeuvre. For her the division between entertainment and art was an illusion, and entertainment had a purpose. When she is onstage, she teaches us how to live.