Ella Fitzgerald and Molly: A Love Story
Sometimes, to borrow a phrase, a photograph can make my heart sing.
My friends always seem amazed at my memory and how I can recall dates, times, conversations, and all kinds of useless trivia. One of the reasons I believe I have such a good memory is because I am a photographer and my photographs provide a visual memory of a moment in time, a two-dimensional portal back to my past if you will, allowing me to re-live an event to my heart’s content. The power of these memory triggers can be utterly profound at times. I seem to remember virtually every good photograph I have made. They bring back the year they were taken, what was going on in that period of my life, and where I was in terms of my growth as a man, a photographer, and my spirituality as a human being.
Sometimes, when re-visiting relationships I have been lucky enough to have had with women I have loved, the images bring back more visceral emotions like touch, smell, and taste. At times the feelings wrought out can be both joyous and painful, but never anything less than wonderfully powerful; love gained; love lost, and the regrets of things not done in this life. I wouldn’t trade a photograph I have made for anything, but sometimes it is a double edged sword.
In early May of 1989 life threw me a wonderful curve ball and I had the great fortune to meet and befriend an extraordinarily intelligent and vivaciously beautiful young lady from Los Angeles, and for the sake of her privacy, I'll call her Molly. Miss Molly was dazzlingly cosmopolitan - in other words; a city girl. We became acquainted when I gave a slideshow to the group of patron donors she was escorting on a retreat in Yosemite Valley. Apparently I did a good job and was invited to be her dining companion at the group dinner later that evening in the great Ahwahnee Hotel dining room. We seemed to hit it off immediately. For me it was the first and only case of love-at-first-sight in my entire life, and I felt so very comfortable and utterly self assured in her presence. Molly apparently felt the same way as she wrote in her first letter to me.
“I’m so glad you mentioned in your letter that you felt comfortable Saturday night. It was just like being a kid again. I felt so protected and so comfortable, as if there was no need for me to worry about anything. In retrospect that scares me, because I realize that I rarely let myself feel that way as an adult. It’s nice to feel comfortable – I can’t wait to feel that way again, soon.”
She then followed up with:
“I can’t wait for you to show me the less populated areas of the National Park. After you’ve done that I’ll have to give you a NOT TO BE BELIEVED tour of Los Angeles.”
When Molly re- visited Yosemite in June I introduced her to the mountain ways of life. We went backpacking out to a stupendous overlook on the south rim of Yosemite Valley. A large swath of the ridiculously awesome High Sierra lay at our feet, and I made a photograph of her at the edge of Yosemite Valley; her lovely form against a backdrop of cumulous clouds and the mighty granite monolith; El Capitan looming in the background. The city girl didn’t look out of place one iota. Looking at this image now I see happiness in her smile and assured stature in allowing herself to embrace a new adventure in life. I believe it was the first time she ever went backpacking and taking her on that brief journey was very special for me. Molly projected so beautifully up there in those clouds, and now, looking at the photograph, I remember how I was falling so deeply in love with her. .
Molly was very well connected in her ability to acquire
concert tickets and during my first visit to see her in Southern California, she got us tickets to attend a concert by none other than The great jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, at probably the
Most famous venue in California, the Hollywood Bowl.
To say I was excited would be a major understatement.
I mean, Ella Fitzgerald OWNED the Hollywood Bowl. Ella
lived in Beverly Hills and this was her home turf and
there could be no better place to hear this legend of
song perform and strut her stuff.
I was ecstatic to hear Molly tell me about this wonderful concert we were going to attend!! I love Jazz. I love jazz singers who scat, I love jazz singers who swing so hard it hurts, and Ms. Fitzgerald’s diction, phrasing, tone, pitch, and emotional ability to not only get inside a song, but to LIVE in it, is the sine qua non of this type of jazz vocalist, for me. And, as if to sweeten the pot even more, the great jazz guitarist Joe Pass was going to be Ella’s special guest for the evening. WOW!
Instinctively I knew this would probably be the only time in my life that I would ever get to see and hear Ella Fitzgerald so I decided that I should try to get some photographs of her performance and packed some camera gear accordingly. Normally I wouldn’t bring a camera to a concert as I am more inclined to just enjoy the music of the performance. Feeling like I MUST photograph can sometimes be a burden and can intrude on the experience. I brought my Nikon FM2 film camera and a selection of 3 lenses along with my little aluminum tripod. The five-and-a-half hour drive went quickly as I sped south through California’s central valley to Los Angeles to be with my girl and Ella Fitzgerald.
I arrived safely at Molly’s parent’s house after navigating the multitudes of crazy Los Angeles traffic. Before I could get to the door I was greeted by Molly’s mother. I said "hello, my names Walter." I was greeted by this woman I had never met or spoken to and she said "Welcome to our home, Walter!", and then she came up and gave me a nice, sincere hug. I was slightly taken aback at this lovely gesture and when I remarked to Molly about it a little later she said "what did you expect, she's Italian." My arrival in L.A. was off to a wonderful and warm beginning!
The tickets we had for the show were close to the stage and we had a private box with a table and chairs. We brought our own food and dined before the show with a couple of bottles of wine.
The ambiance amongst the 14,600-or-so attendees was excruciatingly romantic and thrilling as the anticipation for the performance swelled!
Ella finally hit the stage with her trio of musicians and the magic of the evening began to come into fruition. After a couple of numbers I left my seat to make a few photographs. I roamed as close to the stage as I felt comfortable, set up my tripod, put my 200mm f/4 lens on the camera body, and tried to capture the legend of jazz in the best way I could. I returned to Molly and my seat and watched Ella belt out a couple of more songs. It was so wonderful to sit with this beautiful young woman and hold hands and tap our feet to Ella’s forceful, swinging interpretations.
Then Joe Pass came on stage and absolutely dazzled with a technically and emotionally wrought solo guitar set. I made my way back onto the floor of the venue to make a few photos of him, and then returned once again to our box seats.
Ella cameback on stage and did three or four duets with Mr. Pass. I went out yet again to photograph the two of them as they were obviously having a ball, and the audience and I were eating it up with zesty appreciation. Her trio of musicians then came back to the stage and the five of them did some more songs. Ella closed out the evening with a rendition of Stevie Wonders “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” which was a very prescient observation on how I was feeling about Molly.
As we were exiting the Hollywood Bowl we passed a very large sign on a concrete wall which stated very emphatically:
ABSOLUTELY NO PHOTOGRAPHY ALLOWED! CAMERAS WILL BE CONFISCATED!
In the year 2014 the Hollywood Bowl camera policy states:
”Flash photography, professional camera or recording equipment (including cameras with detachable lenses, any form of camera stand or audio/video recording devices), laser pointers or other electronic devices are prohibited.”
Gulp!! I guess I got lucky by dodging a bullet that evening and not getting apprehended by some form of security patrol. Had I known that photography was not allowed I would probably have never really chanced it and taken the images I got. Perhaps I strutted around with my tripod looking look I owned the place and that's why I was not accosted. I assume I am one of the few people of the 14,000 or so that got really good, close, images of this fantasic concert. I was very pleased when I got my one roll of print film back from being developed a couple of days later and found out that my photos had turned out just fine and the images of perhaps the greatest jazz vocalist in history were well exposed and relatively sharp.
Molly and I returned to Pasadena and she took us to a jazz club that was hosting a wonderful trio of musicians. We drank, talked, and danced till the morning hours. The next day I had to make the return five-and-a-half hour drive to Yosemite and suffer through the time and distance until I saw her again.
The reviews of the concert came out in the Los Angeles papers in the days after the show and they were glowing!
Alan Rich, a writer for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner wrote:
“Here was a great spirit, radiant beyond any question of age, guiding us with charm, grace and awesome command of her art through songs she happened to love. She was in great form. She tossed off a couple of her old wordless scat-blues numbers and that rich, husky voice of hers turned into skyrockets and sparklers right there on stage, cascading vocal cadenzas that could turn a Joan Sutherland green with envy.”
Another review followed
JAZZ REVIEW: A Vigorous Ella at the Bowl
July 14, 1989. A. JAMES LISKA
“Ella Fitzgerald quickly dispelled any trepidation about what time and a decade-long series of health problems might have visited upon the much-celebrated first lady of jazz with her performance Wednesday night at the Hollywood Bowl.
In a performance that is certainly deserving of yet another cry of "Triumph!" Fitzgerald showed that 71 is just a number and that a willing spirit more than compensates for a weakened body.
It seems, judging by all accounts including my own, that Ella Fitzgerald still had the goods and delivered a perfect evening of song to all who were within earshot.
My friend, and former choir mate, Daron Hagen, who is consummately sensitive and astute in all things musical, and one of the pre-eminent composers for the theater and concert halls in the United States, gave me this observation of Ms. Fitzgerald and her singing:
"When I think of Ella Fitzgerald, I think of a woman who knew that the lyrics generated the song, and that the song generated the improvisation. It seems from her recordings and the several times I was able to hear her perform live that she had the grace and technique to make it all sound easy. Lord knows that's not the case and that life is hard. But, when she sang, she had the knack of making things better.”
And for the brief time I was in the company of Molly, she made me better: Love can do that to a man. The desire to please a loved woman can be be a powerfully motivating force of nature and this love has the power to intesify the senses, sharpen the focus, soften the fear, and bring ones realization of self worth to a positive culmination of purpose. I aquired the desire to try harder and do more to expand myself, my life, my skills; to be a better photographer. In a way, because of Molly and the inspiration I garnered from being with her, I decided to leave my comfortable existence in Yosemite Valley after eleven years and move to Colorado to pursue a college degree in professional photography.
Ella Fitzgerald only performed one more time at the Hollywood Bowl during her life about one year after the performance I have documented here and, plagued by serious health problems, she gave her final public performance at Carnegie Hall in 1991, and passed away in 1996. And now, nostalgically looking back, I am happy that I decided to bring my camera that evening and let it intrude a bit on the experience.
The romance and love that Molly and I shared did not endure, but the memories and evocative feelings produced by the photographs from that evening are haunting for me! Judging by my visceral reaction to my photos of these women it is quite evident to me that they both got inside my heart and in some way will always reside there with no chance of escape, and the fact that I was able to spend an evening with both of them, made it the most magical single night of my entire life!
And so, to Miss Molly, wherever you are; I say, in the inimitable way Ella Fitzgerald sang it:
“The way you changed my life, no, no, they can’t take that away from me”
My fifteen minutes of fame which only ended up being one minute.
In 2006 ABC's Good Morning America came to Yosemite National Park to do a film piece for their "Weekend Window" segment which airs on Sunday mornings. They wanted somebody to go on camera and speak about Ansel Adams and his connection to Yosemite through the photographic medium. Since I was a Staff Photographer at The Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Valley, the manager of the gallery asked me if I wanted to go on camera and talk about Ansel and his influence. I said I would and prepared some mental notes on what I might say.
The interviewer and her cameraman decided to film me outside of The Ansel Adams Gallery in the heart of the Village Mall in Yosemite Valley. I was asked basic questions to which I ad-libbed responses based on my knowledge of Ansel and his photographic art.
Next door to the Gallery is the Visitor Center, and it was undergoing a major renovation at the time and there was a lot of construction machinery, construction trucks and workers right next to where my interview was conducted. I would start to talk and a jackhammer would commence to pounding. CUT!! I would start over and get a few sentences in and then a car alarm would go off.. CUT!! I would start over and get a few sentences in and then a cement truck would roll by and use it's airbrakes. CUT!! I would start over and get a few more sentences in and then a group of pedestrians would walk by conversing. CUT!! I remember having to start and stop 14 seperate times because of noise. The irony of the situation was off the charts and the truth is that Yosemite Valley is anything but a serene, peaceful, wilderness experience.
The video was filmed in early October 2006 and aired on National television on November 19, 2006. The editors in the studio did a pretty good job of assembling all the sound clips into one watchable / listenable segment. Myself and a National Park Service Ranger, appear on camera. This was my national television debut and my 15 minutes of so-called (as Andy Warhol would say) fame. Click on the link below to watch the video.