Few Really Knew Ella Fitzgerald

Mar 30, 2017

WBGO News Intern Ishmael Martinez interviews Ella Fitzgerald confidant Jim Blackmon during the cELLAbration hosted by The Institute of Jazz Studies Rutgers-Newark.
Credit Ang Santos / WBGO

You wouldn’t think a singer who was doing close to 300 shows a year at their peak would be nervous each time the curtains rose. Archivist Tad Hershorn with The Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers-Newark says that was the case for Ella Fitzgerald.

“She was always nervous before she went on stage as we are about any type of life experience we might even have a certain handle on.  But when that music started, there she was, it was like watching your grandmother turn into Superwoman,” Hershorn said.

And still, descriptions like shy, self-protective, and even reclusive have been labeled on Ella Fitzgerald.  Dr. Judith Tick is putting the finishing touches on her book Becoming Ella: The Jazz Genius Who Transformed American Song.  She says an elementary school document found during her research describes a seven-year old Fitzgerald as self-reliant.

“Then when she was nine-years-old, a teacher wrote ambitious and that just blew me away.  I can’t imagine most nine-year olds being seen as ambitious but she was.  It was a characteristic that really defined her path.”

Dr. Tick says, as time moves on, it’ll only become more difficult to uncover what kind of person Ella Fitzgerald was.

“She didn’t leave diaries and letters.  There were some letters but they’re not revealing.  She wasn’t a person who wrote out her feelings.  There weren’t that many people who were going to talk about them.  Jazz musicians in general have a code of honor in which you don’t necessarily reveal things about somebody else, if they haven’t said it themselves,” Dr. Tick said.

San Francisco native Jim Blackmon is no normal Ella fan.  Over the years he became a close personal friend.

“I’ve been listening to Ella since I was fifteen years old,” Blackmon said.  “I would go to her house and stay at her house.  She said, ‘Your part of the family, we’re just going to sit in the kitchen area and eat'.”

Blackmon says he was hanging around backstage at her shows for years before their friendship started.

“I got to know her traveling companion and her road manager, and basically hid myself from Ella because I knew she was very private and guarded and I didn’t want to be around when she would say, ‘who’s that person always around,’ so I would hide from her.  And finally she did get to know who I was.”

Blackmon believes if she wasn’t that type of person, she may have been a different singer.

“All of those things that she showed on the stage; Humility, dignity, were what she was like in real life.”

Blackmon is no musician, but when answering questions that delve further into Ella Fitzgerald’s personal life, his responses reflect that secretive code of honor Dr. Judith Tick talks of.

“Just listen to her music.  The music is the all and the end all,” Blackmon said.