I’ve been off sick for the last few days with a nasty bug, but at least it’s given me the chance to listen to quite a lot of music. Yesterday, I was playing some of the classic recordings made in the 1930s by singer Billie Holiday and saxophonist Lester Young. I’ve had these for ages but for some reason haven’t listened to them for a while. Coming back to them after a long break just strengthened my belief that they are amongst the greatest recordings ever made in music of any kind.
Billie Holiday was born in Baltimore in 1915. After a grim and traumatic childhood she dabbled with prostitution and then ended up as a night club singer where she was spotted by talent scout John Hammond who arranged for her to make recordings with Benny Goodman‘s Orchestra in 1933. Most people don’t realise this but, by 1935, this band was a pop sensation on exactly the same scale as, say, the Beatles were to achieve three decades later.
In her early recording career, Billie wasn’t so well known so she was given relatively unpromising songs to sing. With her unique sense of phrasing, and a willingness to take outrageous liberties with both melody and rhythm, she turned out to be brilliant at turning this base metal into gold; some he was undoubtedly the best singer of a bad song there has ever been. If you ever get the chance to hear her versions of When you’re smiling or Back in your own Backyard you can marvel at how she manages to say everything about life and death using only the slenderest of lyrics.
Also featuring on both of these classic tracks was the tenor saxophonist Lester Young. Nicknamed “The President”, or “Prez” for short, he was one of the greatest of all Jazz musicians. He had a sublime gift for melodic improvisations, coupled to unrivalled sense of sheer swing as befits a mainstay of Count Basie‘s magnificently propulsive big band of the late 1930s. The sound of Lester Young at full throttle with the Basie Band riffing away behind him must have been truly magnificent to hear live and is thrilling enough on record.
Although he wasn’t at all averse to a bit of rabble rousing, and loved to see people dancing as he played, Lester Young’s solos on the Billie Holiday recordings mentioned above showed the delicate side of his nature. People often say is that the reason the two of them worked so well together musically was that they had similar sense of phrasing. I don’t agree with that at all. Billie Holiday’s vocal style sound to be more like a feminine version of Louis Armstrong’s, derived from a trumpeter’s mannerisms rather than those of a saxophonist.
Lester Young and Billie Holiday became very close friends during this period, although there is no sign that they had any form of sexual relationship. Rumours have circulated that Lester Young was gay, although I don’t think there’s any evidence to back them up. It is true that he had a rather eccentric and perhaps effeminate demeanour, but it seems that’s just the way he was. During the war, Lester Young was conscripted into the US Army and this had a dreadful effect on him personally and on his career, not least because he wasn’t allowed to play his saxophone at all. The strict discipline and macho posturing of the army affected this gentle and introverted man very badly and drove him to a nervous breakdown. He was eventually discharged from the army and, although he started playing again, his career never regained the heights it had reached in the 1930s. He had frequent bouts of ill health owing to alcoholism and drug abuse and his recordings from the late forties and fifties are of uneven quality.
Billie Holiday’s career was also in decline during the 1940s, after she became addicted to heroin, and she was imprisoned on drugs charges in 1947. Cigarettes, booze and hard drugs ravaged her voice and, although she made a number of classic records in the 1950s, her vocal style was sometimes mannered and self-conscious. I definitely prefer the earlier recordings which show her at her most original. That said, there was one song from George Gershwin‘s Porgy and Bess that invariably inspired her to an intensely moving performance, including this sensational recording made just five months before her death in 1959.
But the reason for putting this all on my blog was that playing through these old records I remembered when I used to listen to Humphrey Lyttelton‘s Jazz programme on the radio. He once admitted on the air that there was a TV recording involving Billie Holiday and Lester Young that he couldn’t watch without bursting into tears. The programme “Sounds of Jazz” was made by CBS Television in the United States in 1957 and features a vast array of great musicians, including Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. But this excerpt is the bit that always got Humph going, and I don’t wonder why.
Lester and Billie had at one time been very close indeed, but had become estranged for some reason, and hadn’t recorded together for the best part of twenty years before this. Time had exacted its toll on both of them. Prez, in fact, was very ill during this broadcase and he looks it. Barely able to stand or hold the horn, when he plays he still manages to deliver a moving and poignant solo. The camera cuts to Billie’s reaction, full of tenderness and empathy and the emotional effect is overwhelming. So intense is that moment that you tend to forget the other magnificent players on this track (including Coleman Hawkins, the other leading saxophonist of the 1930s whose style was very different, but whom Lester Young deeply admired). As Nat Hentoff later recalled
Lester got up, and he played the purest blues I have ever heard, and [he and Holiday] were looking at each other, their eyes were sort of interlocked, and she was sort of nodding and half–smiling. It was as if they were both remembering what had been — whatever that was. And in the control room we were all crying. When the show was over, they went their separate ways.
Lester Young died in March 1959, a little over a year after this performance. In a taxi returning home from his funeral, Billie told a friend that she thought she would be the next. She died in July the same year.Follow @telescoper