The Varieties of Travel Experience   /   Summer 2024   /    Book Reviews

Rare Gift, Rare Grit

Ella Fitzgerald performed above the emotional fray.

Martha Bayles

Ella Fitzgerald performing in Paris, 1961; Philippe Gras/Alamy Stock Photo.

On the cover of Judith Tick’s groundbreaking biography of Ella Fitzgerald, a sepia-toned photo shows an elegant woman poking her head through a doorway with a playfully expectant expression on her face. Her almond-shaped eyes look sideways, as though spotting someone in the room—a fellow musician, perhaps. Her half-smiling lips seem about to say, “Hurry up, the band is waiting!” If you play music, you may imagine yourself being summoned. Other readers may imagine other scenarios. The photo invites curiosity, which fits perfectly with the author’s meticulous care in addressing a host of questions about the greatest American singer of the twentieth century.

This claim of greatness is not extravagant. Along with critical and commercial success, Fitzgerald won the esteem of musicians of every stripe and in every tradition. Henry Pleasants, the renowned author of several books about the vocal art of prominent singers in opera and popular song, wrote this about her rare gift:

She has a lovely voice, one of the warmest and most radiant in its natural range that I have heard in a lifetime of listening to singers in every category. She also has an impeccable and ultimately sophisticated rhythmic sense, and flawless intonation. Her harmonic sensibility is extraordinary. She is endlessly inventive. Her melodic deviations and embellishments are as varied as they are invariably appropriate. And she is versatile, moving easily from up-tempo scatting…to the simplest ballad gently intoned over a cushion of strings.

The frontispiece of Tick’s book presents a picture of the singer accompanied by the following caption: “Fitzgerald as a young girl, the earliest known photo. Undated, probably before 1932. Courtesy of Dorothy Johnson (Ella’s first cousin).” Can this scruffy teenager with the rakish grin be the same songbird rhapsodically described by Pleasants? Obviously, yes. But Tick, a professor emerita of music history at Northeastern University, leaves no doubt that “becoming Ella Fitzgerald” took not just a rare gift but rare grit—and luck.

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