“Use Your Imagination” — Thoughts on Lester Young and Baseball
By Stuart Mitchner
Prez won’t play a tune if he doesn’t know the lyric — the entire lyric.
—Bobby Scott, from “The House in the Heart”
What are your charms for? What are my arms for? Use your imagination …
—from “Just You, Just Me”
With the baseball playoffs looming and the St. Louis Cardinals riding a record-breaking winning streak, I’m in the car listening to Lester Young make love to “Just You, Just Me,” recorded in New York in December 1943, the year the Cards won the pennant and lost the World Series to the Yankees. Driving down the hill from the Kingston Post Office, I’m wondering what position Prez would play on a jazz all-star team, and by the time I get to River Road, I know he’d have to be the pitcher, telling a different story with each throw, deceptively smooth and dreamy, Ali-style, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
Sure enough, in his biography Lester Leaps In (2003), Douglas Daniels reports that while playing ball “with Basie’s Bad Boys,” Lester “wouldn’t think of letting anyone pitch but himself.” Known for a “backspinning” curve that made the batters hit grounders, “Prez could do anything,” according to his bandmate, altoist Earle Warren.
A Giants Fan
Looking for jazz as the city-to-city link in a New York Times story on the 2015 Mets/Royals World Series, sports reporter David Waldstein points out that Young made his name in Kansas City’s nightclub district “before migrating to New York, where he became not only a jazz giant but also a fan of the New York Giants baseball club.” He also played on Count Basie’s team “as a pitcher with nimble fingers.” But not so nimble the time he was shaving, getting ready for a gig at Birdland while listening intently to the radio as the Giants faced the Dodgers in the deciding game of the 1951 National League playoff. When Bobby Thomson won the pennant for New York with the “Shot Heard ’Round the World,” Young was so excited that he cut himself “badly enough that he had some difficulty playing that night.”
In a piece on “the ten best postseason pushes” in Major League history (mlb.com, September 14, 2021), Anthony Castrovince dates the Giants’ amazing run to September 14, 1951, when New York was still six games behind the Dodgers. From that point New York won 14 of their last 16, leading to Thomson’s blast and broadcaster Russ Hodges’s iconic cry, “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” It’s only because the Giants lost to the Yankees in the World Series that Castrovince ranks the surge of 1951 second on his top ten list to the out-of-nowhere rush by the World Champion 2011 Cardinals.
Like all Cardinal fans, I’m hoping that history repeats itself in 2021. If anything, this year’s streaking Redbirds have additional momentum, with, at this writing, 16 straight wins, which ties the record set 70 years ago by Thomson’s Giants. When the 2011 Cardinals rode the wild card all the way to a World Championship, the rallying cry “Happy Flight” could be heard on the plane after each of the 15 “getaway games” they won from early August through October.
The happy flight, the surge, the run, these terms could also describe what happens when Lester Young rides out with the Basie band riffing behind him on numbers like “One O’Clock Jump,” which can be heard on a YouTube clip from the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival, two years before his death and a year before his Giants moved to San Francisco.
Four Little Words
“Just You, Just Me” — the title alone would fit any couple, husband and wife, singer and song, or, in the playoff context, pitcher and catcher. The words may sound greeting-card banal but there’s something simple, succinct, and innocently companionable about the way the tune and the lyric go together. Whatever “charms” and “arms” are for, the key line is “Use your imagination,” and at a time when playoff baseball stands out as a traditionally bipartisan distraction in a polarized nation, I can see “Just You, Just Me” as a caption for a 40-year-old pitcher named Adam Wainwright and his 39-year-old catcher Yadier Molina. On Friday, September 3, Wainwright and Molina became only the fourth pitcher-catcher battery in baseball history to start at least 300 games together. A little over a week later, on September 11, the winning streak that opened the door to the playoffs began with a 6-4 victory over the Cincinnati Reds. Without Wainwright and Molina, the Cardinals’ playoff express might have jumped the track in August.
I’ve been imagining the Cardinals’ 2021 season as a train that left the station in late March, picking up steam in June and again in July after big hits by Molina delivered the first of two inspirational last-of-the-ninth walk-off wins; but then each time, just when you think you’re rolling, you slam to a stop at some station in the middle of nowhere; so it goes, and when you’re wondering if the train is ever going to move again, Wainwright’s pitching takes you to the other side of every losing streak, until the second week in September, when you begin hurtling along at a terrific rate, five straight, eight straight, ten straight wins, as the train speeds through New York, Milwaukee, Chicago, and now back to St. Louis for the last week of the season, with Wainwright set to pitch Tuesday night (before press time!), and you take a deep breath and wonder what the next stop will be, Los Angeles or San Francisco. And then?
A Game of Catch
“I’ll tell you where it starts, it starts with a game of catch,” Adam Wainwright says, quoted by Tyler Kepner in his feature, “A Pitcher from Another Era Goes the Distance” (New York Times, September 17, 2021). “I see so many pitchers now — throwers now — playing fetch instead of catch. A good game of catch is where learning how to pitch really starts.”
“Real pitchers are artists out there,” Wainwright tells Kepner, “and they’re painting their picture as the game goes on. There’s a lot of different ways to get to the end result. Sometimes a hitter makes you do different things, and that’s what pitching is all about — changing speeds, changing angles, changing up and down, in and out, up and in, down and away.” As Kepner says of Wainwright, “in concert with his timeless battery mate, catcher Yadier Molina, he is coy with details. Secrecy matters, he explained.”
With a few verbal adjustments, Wainwright could be describing what Lester Young is “all about.” According to jazz writer Stanley Dance: “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.”
“Just You, Just Me”
With lyrics by Raymond Klages and music by Jesse Greer, “Just You, Just Me” has been recorded “hundreds of times by over one hundred artists,” according to jazzstanddards.com, since a ukulele-stumming soldier (Lawrence Gray) crooned it to a spirited French girl played by Marion Davies in a 1929 early talkie called Marianne. The 1929 Cliff Edwards version was on the pop charts for two weeks, rising to No. 13.