In recent years, many biographies of jazz artists and numerous studies of jazz have been published. Unfortunately, the quality of most of these works is extremely poor. The typical writer about jazz either knows much about the subject at hand but cannot write coherently or writes well and has little of value to say. Stuart Nicholson, however, knows whereof he speaks and writes with a sense of style that makes it a pleasure to read his book.
Nicholson was unable to interview Ella Fitzgerald, who is notoriously reclusive. In the end, however, that problem may have led him to produce a better book than he would have been able to write if he had interviewed the singer, since Fitzgerald has tended to provide the press with highly fictionalized accounts of her life. Faced with an uncooperative subject, Nicholson was forced to dig deep for information, and the results are gratifying.
Nicholson’s biography is organized chronologically and primarily utilizes his own research. His account of Fitzgerald’s life relies heavily on reminiscences by people who knew or worked with Fitzgerald. Nicholson did extensive interviews, and the resulting information is a gold mine for Fitzgerald fans. Nicholson’s work answers many previously unanswered questions about Fitzgerald, such as whether her first husband was Benny Kornegay (Nicholson proves that she did marry Kornegay). His description of her early years is particularly fascinating. Before she got her initial break with the Chick Webb band, Fitzgerald was basically a street person who slept in friends’ homes whenever she could. Initially, Webb did not want to hire her, because, no matter how well she sang, her clothes were filthy and she never bathed. In addition, at a time when female singers were expected to be attractive and sexy, Fitzgerald was plain and overweight. She was hired only because various musicians fought hard on her behalf, since it was obvious even then that hers was a rare vocal gift.
Ultimately, Nicholson paints a portrait of a remarkable artist who embodied many contradictions, a woman who never quite stopped being a little girl but knew how to be tough when it came to business. The book is fascinating and entertaining, and there is no better work about Fitzgerald.
ELLA FITZGERALD contains endnotes, an index, and an excellent discography by Phil Schaap.