REVIEW: of Becoming Ella Fitzgerald: The Jazz Singer Who Transformed American Song
By Judith Tick
: An exhaustive, unsatisfying look at one of the 20th century’s premier performers. (Rose Rankin, January 4, 2024, Washington Independent Review of Books)

The telling of a history — whether of an event, a time period, or a life story — involves recounting the basics of who, what, where, and so on. It also calls for explaining the why — why something was different than what came before, or why it came to be so important. On the first account, Judith Tick’s new biography, Becoming Ella Fitzgerald, succeeds admirably. On the second, however, it unfortunately falls short.

Tick digs deep into archival research to painstakingly reconstruct Fitzgerald’s life, starting with her upbringing in segregated Yonkers, New York. Musically inclined from a young age and encouraged by her mother, Fitzgerald initially wanted to be a dancer, but her singing brought her more gigs during her Depression-era teenage years.

After a harrowing stay at a girls’ juvenile-detention facility — for a minor truancy infraction compounded by overzealous sentencing, an all-too-familiar situation for Black youth — Fitzgerald got her first break at the Apollo Theater’s Amateur Hour in 1934. Her nerves almost got her booed off the stage, but thanks to a kind emcee giving her a second chance that night, she ended up electrifying the audience.