In recent weeks, we’ve asked members of the Hollywood Bowl family, past and present, who their favorite performers have been. Their answers have shown a remarkable lack of variety:
“When I was in college at USC, I got a group of friends together to hear Ella Fitzgerald at the Bowl, which I think ended up being one of the last times she was there. We were way up in the benches, but it didn’t matter at all.”
“Being able to see the jazz performances, Ella Fitzgerald, that was the pinnacle.”
“I must have heard Ella Fitzgerald at the Bowl half a dozen times. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.”
Fitzgerald holds the rare distinction of having sold out the Hollywood Bowl’s 18,000 seats in each of five decades, from the 1950s through the 1990s Fitzgerald was more than just the Bowl’s most popular performer — her ability to make the largest venue feel like the most intimate space changed the definition of what was possible for the Hollywood Bowl.
The story begins in August 1956, when Fitzgerald made her Bowl debut alongside Louis Armstrong. Legendary jazz impresario Norman Granz produced the show, recorded it, and released it on a double album titled Jazz at the Hollywood Bowl.
In the liner notes, he wrote:
“Of all the jazz concerts I have given, I can’t recall in any the quiet thrill I experienced when I looked across the water that separated the Hollywood Bowl shell in which the musicians were to play and the more than twenty thousand people who attended the concert. Suddenly I felt that after all the talk, and true talk it was, about “jazz and the smoke-filled rooms” and jazz’s roots in the work fields and the brothels, it was wonderful that evening to see that jazz finally found a proper place for itself, a sort of new dimension, where it could move great masses of people emotionally, and in a way, beautifully and peacefully.”
Granz credits the magic of the Bowl itself as the key to the concert’s success, but listening to the album makes it clear that it was Fitzgerald who lit the fire that night, bringing her joy, her passion, and her humor (at one point imitating Armstrong’s gravelly voice) to the event.
The Los Angeles Times sent its typically staid classical music reviewer Albert Goldberg to cover the program. Goldberg was at a rare loss for words to encapsulate Fitzgerald’s gifts:
“We asked an aficionado how to describe her and the rapturous reply was ‘Just say she is the most!.’ We will go right along with that.” Goldberg added: “It was something like a cataclysm of nature and it had a tornadic effect… Miss Fitzgerald alone was worth the price of admission.”
Fitzgerald found a way to connect with nearly 20,000 music lovers that night in a concert that went on until well after midnight (against the Bowl rules in 1956 as it is today). Not only that, she did it without the benefit of a single video screen; through a sound amplification system that was rudimentary, even by the standards of the time; and by singing across the moat-like Reflecting Pool, which separated the stage from the audience at the time.
For these (and other) reasons, the Bowl had only hosted a handful of jazz programs prior to 1956, but Fitzgerald was invited to return every year for the next five years, performing with her own musicians (including pianist Paul Smith and guitarist Joe Pass) and, on occasion, with the full Los Angeles Philharmonic.
As jazz’s popularity at the Bowl dipped in the 1970s, Fitzgerald continued to keep the flame alive, until the enduring and uniquely American genre found a permanent home at Bowl with the inauguration of the Playboy Jazz Festival in 1979 and the Jazz at the Bowl subscription series in 1980. Fitzgerald became a frequent and beloved guest. Anne Parsons, former General Manager of the Bowl and current President and CEO of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, recalled:
“There were a lot of people who wouldn’t play outdoor venues, but they would play the Hollywood Bowl. Ella Fitzgerald, right down to when she could barely walk out on stage, made sure she played the Hollywood Bowl.”
Fitzgerald, who lived in Los Angeles, was always eager to get back to the Bowl. When she tripped and fell on stage in the middle of a 1986 concert, the full house of 18,000 gasped in unison – Fitzgerald had undergone a quintuple bypass surgery only a few months prior. Fortunately, Fitzgerald had just lost her footing. From the ground, she looked out to the audience and quipped, “People can really say Ella fell for them,” before jumping right back into her song.
Fitzgerald continued to sing at the Bowl up until a couple years before her passing in June 1996 — one week before that year’s Playboy Jazz Festival. The event morphed into a weekend-long, impromptu celebration of Fitzgerald’s legacy. Fans put up a banner near the entrance to the Bowl that read: “Ella We Miss You.”
Nearly 25 years later, we still miss Ella, and, like her, we just can’t wait to get back to the Bowl.