Judith Tick at Harvard Book Store
Becoming Ella Fitzgerald:
The Jazz Singer Who Transformed American Song
In conversation with BOB BLUMENTHAL
December 8, 2023
7:00 PM ET
Harvard Book Store
1256 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138
This event is free; no tickets are required.
Harvard Book Store welcomes JUDITH TICK—professor emerita of music history at Northeastern University—for a discussion of her new biography Becoming Ella Fitzgerald: The Jazz Singer Who Transformed American Song. She will be joined in conversation by BOB BLUMENTHAL—author of Saxophone Colussus: A Portrait of Sonny Rollins.
About Becoming Ella Fitzgerald
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.
Praise for Becoming Ella Fitzgerald
"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
"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
Masks are encouraged but not required for this event.
Walking from the Harvard Square T station: 2 minutes
As you exit the station, reverse your direction and walk east along Mass. Ave. in front of the Cambridge Savings Bank. Cross Dunster St. and proceed along Mass. Ave for three more blocks. You will pass Au Bon Pain, JP Licks, and TD Bank. Harvard Book Store is located at the corner of Mass. Ave. and Plympton St.
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