May 122008

When I get bored – or have something more important to do – I like to kill time by browsing through jazz videos on YouTube. Whereas today every note sung, latte bought, thought expressed and vagina exposed by our vapid pop stars is recorded for posterity, live videos from the jazz’s heyday are relatively few and far between, mostly due to the difficulty of video recording in the sort of venues where great jazz transpired. But there are always exceptions, and among the most sterling is 1957’s The Sound of Jazz (available on DVD here), a TV broadcast gathering luminaries of Dixieland, swing and bop onto one stage for a combined concert. The standout of the evening, which has been uploaded to YouTube, is Billie Holiday’s performance of her song “Fine and Mellow,” notable not only for its quality but for the fact that it marked the musical reunion – and last performance together – of Holiday and the brilliant, influential tenor saxophonist Lester Young.

After forming an exceptionally close musical and personal partnership during the ’30s and early ’40s (giving each other the nicknames “Prez” and “Lady Day”), Holiday and Young drifted apart, and by the time The Sound of Jazz was taped they apparently hadn’t seen each other or spoken in years. Wikipedia relates the story of their reunion per jazz and social critic Nat Hentoff:

Hentoff, who was involved in putting the show together, recalled that during rehearsals, they kept to opposite sides of the room. Young was very weak, and Hentoff told him to skip the big band section of the show and that he could sit while performing in the group with Holiday.

Years of alcohol abuse had ravaged Young’s famously smooth tone and seriously eroded his chops, but his melodic sense and good taste remain beautifully, and thankfully, intact. He can’t stand up through an entire song, he looks terrible, and he doesn’t have the stamina to play for more than a few bars, but he still manages to turn in a masterful blues solo (beginning 2:39 into the video). Holiday’s reaction is heartwarming and heartbreaking in equal measures.

I’ll be a man. I’ll admit it. It makes me mist over a lot a little. And I’m not the only one. Hentoff again:

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.

Little more than a year afterwards, Young died. Attending his funeral, Holiday said “I’ll be the next to go.” She was – only four months later, she joined him.

There’s plenty to recommend the rest of the video. Here’s the order of the solos, if you like what you hear and want to look into the musicians:

1) Ben Webster, swing tenor saxophonist
2) Lester Young, swing tenor saxophonist
3) Vic Dickinson, Dixieland/swing trombonist
4) Gerry Mulligan, bebop baritone saxophonist, token white boy and representative of the school of Cool
5) Coleman Hawkins, swing tenor saxophonist
6) Roy Eldridge, swing trumpeter, who seems to be having a lot more fun than anyone else

The historically-minded should note how nonexistent production values were in the early years of television, especially in the obvious editing. The emcee (John Crosby, I think), who appears to have been produced, vitamin-enriched, and shipped out in stiff plastic wrapping just in time for the broadcast by the Continental Baking Company, dips deep into the cultural lexicon of 1950s America for an adjective to describe the incomparable Billie Holiday, and dredges up “really great.” He could have at least tried “spiffy keen.” Then he turns away from the camera and reads the names of the musicians off a clipboard. Imagine if Ryan Seacrest did that shit. He would be off the air faster than you can say “flagging numbers among females 18-49.”

To send you off, here’s Billie and Lester in happier times (1941), burning through “Let’s Do It” (in all its politically incorrect glory) and “All of Me”:

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And since we’re on the topic of Lester Young’s tragic early demise, here’s Charles Mingus’s eloquent requiem for the late saxophonist, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” recorded in 1959, followed by Joni Mitchell’s vocal version of the same, from her Weather Report-backed album Mingus, recorded in part with the dying bassist in the ’70s.

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