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‘She understood that music could bring people together’: Author Judith Tick on Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald
c/o W.W. Norton
Ella Fitzgerald

In the new and very thorough biography of Ella Fitzgerald, author Judith Tick writes beautifully about Fitzgerald’s life and music. Published Dec. 5, Becoming Ella: The Jazz Singer Who Transformed American Song busts a few myths about the legendary vocalist, who initially rose to prominence in the ‘30s as the singer in Chick Webb’s band, both in residence at the famous Savoy Ballroom in Harlem and on the road throughout the country. She would go on to a long and remarkable career that lasted until the early ‘90s. Her position in the pantheon of legendary jazz vocalists is inarguable. I spoke with Tick about writing the book and about some of the interesting discoveries that resulted from her research.

Listen to our conversation, above.

Interview transcript:

Lee Mergner: Why Ella as a subject? What made you choose to feature her?

Judith Tick: That's a common question I get asked and it's hard to answer because it didn't just hit me overnight. It was a heart and mind decision. I think my heart went there around 2005 when I was just finishing a course on African American and Anglo- American folk song traditions at MIT with a friend. My father had just died that year and my brother gave a eulogy at his funeral using alphabet numbers and he said “E is for Ella.”

I'm the kind of person that believes in signs and that felt like one. I didn't really do anything about it for a few years, and then slowly, after I finished this wonderful documentary anthology called Music in the USA, I was teaching at Northeastern. Through primary sources, I turned to Ella, and I reached out to her son in 2011. I got a grant from NEH. I signed a contract with W.W. Norton in 2013. I retired from Northeastern University in Boston to write this book.

The other reason it took me so long is that there was so much new material out there. This is a 21st Century biography because it depends on the new material that's online, that’s been digitized and that's been deposited at the Smithsonian Museum.

Also, people who knew Ella and weren't free to talk when she or Norman Granz was alive or there were other people around saying, “Quiet, quiet, quiet.” They're gone so these other new sources felt they could open up more. That was really quite an amazing experience for me.

Where did your research take you? You obviously went to various archives and libraries. What primary sources did you come upon?

Let me say there are primary sources that everybody can now use that I want to mention. These are digitized newspapers, particularly Black newspapers, which most white scholars don’t know about. Much of history has been written by white scholars for better and worse, and they don't know about that whole other world in print, which chronicles a whole society that was really obscured by Jim Crow racism, Jane Crow sexism, what have you.

Now it's all there in searchable places. Newspapers like the Pittsburgh Courier, which had a huge circulation and was enormously influential. I mean, I knew about the Chicago Defender and I knew about the New York Amsterdam News. I called up my friend and colleague, Daphne Duval Harrison, who wrote a very early book about blues singers called Black Pearls, and I asked her for advice.

She said, “Well, there's the Pittsburgh Courier.” I had never heard of that newspaper. Now it’s digitized so everybody can access that, especially if they push their public libraries to get licenses for these platforms. The second part was unique to me, and that is Ella’s family. People hardly knew that Ella Fitzgerald had a big extended family.

I reached out to her son, Ray Brown Jr. I met him. I heard him perform. I followed him around a little bit. I'm laughing as I remember all the places that I went, sometimes bringing my daughter with me. Then I also met her cousin, Dorothy Johnson, who lives in Los Angeles. She is really my age, and is the youngest child of Ella's aunt. Dorothy said to me, “People don't know that Ella had a family, an extended family around her. She brought up nieces and grandnieces and great grandbabies.” That was so special.

One of those things that I think makes any biography worth its salt is that it tells us something we didn't know about the subject or busts a myth. Well, one of these myths is that we all think of her as coming from Newport News, because Newport News claims her so actively. But in fact, it was really Westchester County, New York, where she lived in her formative years. Tell us a bit about what you learned about her early years and the myths about that.

First of all, I straightened out when her mother Tenthie died. I found out the real name of her stepfather, who was somewhat demonized early on, and he turned out to be a reasonable person. I learned about her half- sister that Ella kept up with her whole life. Her name was Francis and I went to Yonkers, New York early on which is where Ella grew up. There is a statue by Vinnie Bagwell of Ella Fitzgerald right in Getty Square near the train station where Ella got on the train to go to Harlem.

I learned how close Yonkers is to Harlem which made that world was accessible to Ella. That's what really made her. She did not grow up in the South. She didn't grow up in Newport News and she didn't grow up in Baltimore. She was a Northern girl.

Her big break in a way came in Harlem when she joined Chick Webb, one of the first men who had an enormous impact on her. It was such a short time when you look at it when she was in that band. But it seemed like that was a period of transformation for her in terms of the way she approached the music. Talk a little bit about her time with Chick and how that changed her life.

Okay, we're going to talk about Chick and Ella, because that's how they were described in the jazz press, meaning Downbeat and Metronome and the Black newspapers who advertised in them as well as Billboard and Variety. Chick and Ella. Initially she was a girl singer. “I don't want no girl singer,” Chick said. He had a boy singer but then she became a musical daughter. He didn't ever legally adopt her. She didn't need that. He became her legal guardian so she could travel upstate. Instead, he became her musical mentor, her musical father, so to speak.

When I Get Low I Get High

He treated her like a musical daughter who he wanted to cultivate, whose gifts he respected, and he gave her his beat. He was a brilliant percussionist and he could kick his band like nobody else and she learned how to kick lyrics. She learned how to kick melody. She learned the push of swing because Chick Webb embodied hot music and Black swing. There was Benny Goodman out there capturing those headlines and he was a fabulous musician who admired Chick. He used to come up to Harlem to study his music well. That was the world that Ella entered into—the world of powerful dance swing—and she never lost that.

One of the things I loved learning was about Ella the dancer, that she just loved to dance the jitterbug, and truckin’. I thought truckin’ was a ‘60s term, but apparently not. Anyway, dancing was a big part of her character.

She often said, “I wanted to be a dancer.” She thought of herself as a dancer because she was singing and dancing in Yonkers. She appeared publicly as a singer and a dancer at social clubs for Black kids. and black adults. There was a significant, small but powerful black middle class in Yonkers and they supported all kinds of recreational activity. This is the Depression. They organized themselves into social clubs and she had experience, she could shimmy. I read a description of Ella as a shimmy shake dancer, if you can believe it. She was a young teenager. She wanted to look like that. She did not really understand the depth of her voice. It took her a while to take pride in and understand what she had been given. Her years with Chick Webb began that process.

Like many Black musicians of that time, she had to work with and for some tough, but also supportive, white promoters. Talk to us about one of them, Moe Gale, and how he helped her career, but also in some ways hindered it.

I think all managers do that in some level. No manager is perfect. Everybody helps and hinders the people that we love the most, I think. Moe Gale loved Ella, but he really loved Chick. Initially, it was Chick Webb who had to pay for Ella, but then Moe Gale took her over. At that time, every Black artist needed a white manager. Well, not every. But the norm was that to deal in the white music industry, you needed a white manager. Jewish Americans had a niche in that industry because they settled near Harlem in the Upper West Side, and they had that niche in the entertainment world for a long time.

Moe Gale represented the best of that tradition. He started the Savoy Ballroom with his partner, Joe Fagan, because he wanted a place for Black people to feel that they got the same luxurious ballroom treatment that you could get downtown in Roseland, where you really weren't welcome.

That's where Ella got her start. The Savoy Ballroom and Moe Gale was a partner in that. He was the perfect person. He had a dance link. He had an office in the RCA building downtown so he could do radio promotion and he was a savvy businessman. He could keep a band going. After Chick died, Moe understood that Ella could really do that. She could keep a band going.

Now, the negative part is he probably didn't pay anybody. The Savoy Ballroom paid very little. They didn't really respect their musicians enough, and Ella didn't really earn really good money until the late ‘40s. And Moe Gale bears some responsibility there.

Next in line in the tough yet supportive category was Milt Gabler of Decca. Decca is really where she first came to wider attention on those records. But again, it wasn't perfect, was it?

No, of course, nothing is, but Milt Gabler had insight into how she could reach out beyond being a jive singer and get a larger audience. He knew she could cross over into ballads. He hooked her up with the stars that Decca was cultivating and had under contract. I mean, he had a big, huge Black pop list. He hooked her up with Louis Armstrong in 1946 and with Louis Jordan, the king of R&B. It wasn't called rock and rhythm and blues then, but he was the king of race records. Louis Jordan was a brilliant musician and he was even in the Chick Webb band.

Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong - Dream A Little Dream Of Me (Audio)

Milt Gabler knew how to maximize her market potential. That's what he knew how to do. He put her with collaborators that got her voice a different audience and he respected and admired her. Did he want to do jazz? Did he want to do bebop? Did he? No, but she pushed him.

When push came to shove, he came through and he did that gorgeous record with Ellis Larkins, Ella Sings Gershwin. She said in print, “I want better material in one form or another,” and he listened. He respected her. He let her know that we have to do those commercial records, but that's going to pay for “Lady Be Good.” It's checks and balances all the time.

That's the way it is today, so it's not unusual. The next one, of course, is one of her most important and intense professional and even personal relationships, and that's with Norman Granz. He organized Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP), but then became her producer and manager. It seemed to be such an interesting symbiotic relationship they had which was long lasting. I thought one of the fascinating parts of your book is where you talk about how he convinced her to do the first song book, which was  a departure for her. Of course, they established the great American Songbook, but it was not a given.

It was not a given. Norman Granz grew up in Los Angeles and he went to the movies all the time so he knew all the ‘20s and ‘30s musicals. He adored Fred Astaire. If he could have been anybody, it would have been Fred Astaire. While it didn't quite work out that way for him, he turned out to be a brilliant businessman. But he loved that music.

All the people in JATP did catalogs like Oscar Peterson did a Gershwin songbook. But he understood that Ella as a singer could reach that material in a completely different way. Can I read you what Ella said about this? “In the 50s, I started singing with a different kind of style, picking out songwriters and singing their songs. Cole Porter was the first. It was like beginning all over again. People who never heard me suddenly heard songs, which surprised them because they didn't think I could sing them. People always figure you could only do one thing. It was like another education.”

All Through The Night

That's what Norman gave her, that opportunity to grow. She needed to grow. She was like a plant that needed to burst out into bloom and he understood that and he gave her the confidence. She said, He gave me the confidence to do songs I had been afraid of.” Now what does that mean? Why was she quote afraid of them? Because they came from Broadway and Hollywood. The Great White Way has a name for a reason. It was white. It didn't really welcome Black artists, dancers, singers, composers. He (Norman) opened those doors in her own heart to herself.

Of course, they traveled. That was one of Norman's great legacies, which is the idea of taking these great jazz musicians on the road and doing concert halls, which at the time was unusual. As you point out, he took them to cities where Jim Crow was still very active. There were lots of tough times for them.

The biographer of Norman Granz, Tad Hershhorn, is a friend of mine, and we always fight about the relative important power struggles between who won. Did Norman win them or did Ella win them? Regardless, both of them were united in the notion that discrimination was wrong, that people should learn to sit together and hear music and be in one audience.

That's access to public places. We didn't have that civil rights law until the mid-60s. Norman and Ella and the troop were like…freedom fighters is an exaggeration…it makes them too vulnerable. But they went through some harrowing times. They got arrested by cops who said you don't belong in that place. “Get your suitcases out and go to the whites only section.” Norman battled enough harrowing circumstances that the NAACP gave him an award in the late 40s. They recognized a civil rights warrior all along. And Ella was there, in the front line, bringing in those audiences and making it possible.

She didn't talk about it like that. She'd say, “Oh, we paid our dues.” But she was the reason that Norman could use jazz for justice. I mean, that's an overstatement, but nevertheless, it has enough truth in it so that I can say it in a dramatic way.

It was a different time. Another important male figure, of course, was Ray Brown, who was her husband. That marriage didn't last that long, but they kept their relationship, over the years, both professionally and personally in some fashion. It was very unusual, I thought, that they continued to work together.

I don't think they had a choice initially. Ray Brown wasn't going to leave this JATP job. Ella wouldn't have wanted him to. She suffered over that. She didn't just jump from adoring and loving her handsome husband, who was her manager for a while, into the singer who could look back at Ray Brown and know that he was married to somebody else. There were women waiting for his attention.

It took a while for Ella to get over it and just become inured and build that wall of professional distance that she needed. People in the Black world knew that. It was less obvious in the white world. Writers didn't understand how much she went through. I found a song she wrote around that time that talks about, “Throw it out your mind, we'll just be friends.” I think it was amazing.

One of the things I learned from your book is her love of the audience. That a lot of her choices for material were based on not making money and having crossover success so much as pleasing the live audience. She seemed to have a real visceral appreciation for them.

You know what Ray Brown Jr., her son, said to me? “My mother was all about the audience.” And he meant that in the highest way, a compliment, not that she was just out to please people in a kind of trivial sense, but that she understood that music could. I get very emotional about this when I talk about it.

Author Judith Tick
James Blackman
Author Judith Tick

She understood that music could bring people together. She understood that she could reach out right across the generations. Do you remember that term generation gap in the 1960s? Well, it's a canyon right now. It's mountains between one generation's taste and the other’s. The only hope for some language is grandparents and the parents that have to take their kids to see Beyonce and Taylor Swift. I'm about to go to see both of those good documentaries that exist so I can talk to my grandchildren and I want to do that. Ella understood that. She always had audiences of multiple generations at her shows.

There must have been so many discoveries for you. What do you look back and go “Here’s one of the most interesting discoveries about her.” I'm sure researching is nothing but discovery, but what really surprised you to learn about her life?

It was her understanding of her own versatility as a gift and her complete lack of snobbery about music. Every kind of music has elitism or hierarchies of taste within it. Jazz has it. Classical music has it. We all have the need to claim ourselves as taste masters/makers? We all have the understanding of hierarchies. But Ella understood she was able to transcend that. She accepted her need to be diverse and complicated and be herself.

She wasn't beautiful. She knew that and that was painful to her sometimes. She overcame that. I think it was her integrity as an artist. It got expressed in every way musically in her own words and the interviews that I discovered and was so happy to see, in the way she related to other musicians, the way she embraced their strengths and wanted to compete and collaborate at the same time.

For me to understand all the choices she made as a bop singer, for example, that there was so much communication in bop. There was so much relationship in bop that she was relating to everybody through improvisation. I was knocked out by that. You know what I wanted to do? Transcribe every improv. I'm a musicologist. I was trained to be complete. I thought, “Oh, I'll just transcribe every improvisation she ever made.” I couldn't do it, but it was it was the idea that I should. That was so important to me.

For over 27 years, Lee Mergner served as an editor and publisher of JazzTimes until his resignation in January 2018. Thereafter, Mergner continued to regularly contribute features, profiles and interviews to the publication as a contributing editor for the next 4+ years. JazzTimes, which has won numerous ASCAP-Deems Taylor awards for music journalism, was founded in 1970 and was described by the All Music Guide, as “arguably the finest jazz magazine in the world.”