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Vol. LXIII, No. 34
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
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Record Review

Lester Young at 100: Fine and Mellow, Hurtful and Haunting

Stuart Mitchner

Irrespective of tempo, his melodic invention was always strange and haunting. On a jump number, he would impose a weird mood; a ballad was transformed into a nostalgic song, searching and mysterious.

Stanley Dance

Lester Young’s one-hundredth birthday is tomorrow, August 27. He died 50 years ago, March 14, in his room on the fourth floor of the Alvin Hotel on Broadway and 52nd Street. From his window he could keep an eye on the “Jazz Corner of the World,” Birdland, where I was fortunate enough to see him play, third on the bill after Sarah Vaughan and Dizzy Gillespie. At 16, I was underage, but as long as I sat in the section to the side of the bandstand they called the bleachers, they left me alone. Vaughan and Gillespie were famous outside the jazz world. I’d heard of Lester Young but if someone had told me he was a giant, one of the elite group of truly legendary jazz musicians, I’d have thought they were putting me on. Before Sarah Vaughan did her set and Dizzy Gillespie his, with the usual comic touches, the saddest man I ever saw slouched on to the stand and nothing was funny. It hurt to watch him sweating under the hot glare of a spotlight that made his face look jaundiced.

For all I know he played beautifully that night, the way he does in records made around the same time, in the mid-1950s. It may be an abuse of hindsight to say this but I’d like to think that the way I was hurting for him was not just a reaction to the human devastation my naive eyes were taking in but a tribute to something that was coming through from him to me, not by way of my ears but my heart. I’d like to think that those moments when he was suffering the glare, with me aching at the sight of him, made everything else in the nightclub scene — the chaos of talking, laughing, smoking, even the divine Sarah and the great Dizzy — seem gaudy and superficial.

Watch the brief, unforgettable solo Lester Young takes on “Fine and Mellow” as Billie Holiday looks on, her eyes brimming with love, and you’ll see what I’m trying to describe. The moment is from a session filmed for a 1957 CBS program called The Sound of Jazz and there are numerous YouTube versions of it. Nat Hentoff called that ghostly apparition of a solo “the sparest, purest blues” he’d ever heard.

Lady Lingo

It makes sense that this most uniquely eloquent of players would communicate on his own terms. For one thing, he enjoyed addressing people of either sex as “Lady,” the most famous instance of this quaint peculiarity of address being, of course, “Lady Day,” for his soulmate, who returned the favor by dubbing him the President or Pres. One time when he was having problems with the keys on his tenor, he turned for help to his friend and fellow tenor man Flip Phillips, who was good at fixing things, and lamented, “Lady Flip, my people won’t play.” For the President, it stands to reason that his keys are his people, but more often than not, his verbal inventions left innocent bystanders scratching their heads. Old girlfriends were “waybacks,” the bridge to a tune was a “George Washington,” and something bad was “von Hangman.” When he was uneasy, he’d say, “I feel a draft.” Language was his to perform, no less than music. He had the eyes and ears of a poet, and his lexicon could fill a book. Some even credit him with coining the word “cool” as an expression of approval.

The President also had a fondness for certain obscenities, his particular favorite being one four-syllable expression that has since become almost fashionable. He had “the oddest gentle way” of saying it, according to pianist/composer Bobby Scott in his reminiscence, “The House in the Heart,” one of the most affectionate and revealing portraits of the man in his later years. “Pres used profanity — and all language — creatively …. Lester was very aware of how people broke hearts with their tongues.” Scott thinks that because Young was himself “offended so easily,” he “couched” his own observations in “ ‘unknown’ terms, that he might not give offense.”

This “oddest gentle” note comes near to describing the quality in Lester Young’s playing that has so moved listeners and fellow musicians over the years. At those special moments it’s as if he’s translated words like “plaintive” and “poignant” into music. Although these moments of wonderment take place most often in ballads, he’ll surprise you in the middle of a full-tilt solo, nailing you the equivalent of a cry in the wilderness or “between the heaves of storm.” Mike Zwerin used the same word, calling “the Cry” a “direct audial objectification of the soul. You know it when you hear it.”

Learning From Poirier

As a onetime graduate student in English at Rutgers with the late Richard Poirier (1925-2009), who taught us to see the world in literature and literature in the world, I find myself making odd but not implausible connections between genres. For instance, listening to Art Tatum, whose centenary is also this year, is like reading Henry James at his most complexly expansive. Also born in 1909, Benny Goodman could be a character in the novel Ralph Ellison never wrote, another Invisible Man centered perhaps on Wardell Gray, who died violently and mysteriously after thriving and suffering in the domain of the racially enlightened but chillingly distant Goodman, he of the basilisk gaze known as the Ray. Another giant born in the magic year, Ben Webster plays so haunting a tenor that it moved a friend of mine to Homeric analogies: he heard Lady Ben summoning the shades of the underworld.

Even so, it’s safe to say that Lester Young has prompted more literary cross pollination than anyone this side of Charlie Parker. In Visions of Jazz, Gary Giddins compares “the windblown inventions” of his earliest recordings to “lean probing tales as narratively precise as a Hemingway story,” and finds his “canvas” equal to that of Leaves of Grass, “his every improvisation another leaf, some greener than others, all part of a visionary achievement.” To Jack Kerouac, he’s a muse, a hero, a trope, “the greatness of America in a single Negro musician.” Never one to hold his rhapsodic muse in check, Kerouac goes on to compare him to a river flowing from Butte to New Orleans, and then, in the same paragraph in On the Road, calls him “that gloomy saintly goof in whom the history of jazz is wrapped.”

Fine and Mellow

B.B. King, of all people, declares that “Pres invented cool. Rather than state a melody, he suggested it. He barely breathed into his horn, creating an intimacy that gave me chills.” This is pretty much what Young is doing in that CBS performance of “Fine and Mellow” centered on Billie Holiday. Even with living legends like Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster to contend with, it took Young, in Giddins’s words, only “a total of 20 seconds” to steal the show “with a whispered solo.” Of course Ben Webster was probably the most accomplished whisperer of them all. But as I found out that night in Birdland, Lester Young doesn’t just whisper in your ear; he goes deeper: he gets you where you hurt. You can see him getting to Billie Holiday during that extraordinary performance. Whether or not you agree that he steals the show, no less remarkable is the way Holiday (with some help from an enlightened cameraman) manages to sing even when she isn’t singing. Her reactions are pure music. She nods, smiles, inhales the smoke of the sounds swirling around her, and blisses out before our eyes. As she listens, the beauty of her face, seen in profile, is uncanny. She’s radiant. Then when she sings on either side of every solo, it’s easy to hear who her music most resembles, for she phrases much as the President does. “When Lester plays,” she told her biographer, William Dufy, “he almost seems to be singing; one can almost hear the words,” and the most memorable “singing” he ever did was when he entwined his tenor line around Lady Day’s vocals. Two years later they were both dead, he at 50 in his room at the Alvin Hotel, she at 45 four months later under police guard in New York’s Metropolitan Hospital, having been arrested for drug possession when she was dying. The woman you see in a beatific trance in the “Fine and Mellow” clip looks to be in her twenties.

My sources are the YouTube performance of “Fine and Mellow,” which can be found under Lester Young on an extraordinary website (http://ahsjazz.googlepages. com/youtubevideolinks), which is nothing less than an offering of YouTube links to some 831 jazz artists. The quotes from Gary Giddins come from his books Visions of Jazz and Natural Selection, both available at the Princeton Public Library along with Julia Blackburn’s With Billie. I also consulted Luc Delannoy’s Pres: The Story of Lester Young. Bobby Scotts’s piece can be found in Robert Gottlieb’s great anthology, Reading Jazz. I’ve been listening to a whole array of Lester Young CDs acquired over the years, from the recordings with Basie and Billie Holiday on Definitive, to a bootleg recorded at Birdland in 1951. Out this year is Centennial Celebration on Original Jazz Classics, which features performances from the 1950s. The 4 CD Mosaic set of Young with Basie is on back order and due soon. You can sample it on Mosaic. Above all, visit YouTube and see the full nine-minute version of “Fine and Mellow.”

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