AMERICA'S ALL-TIME GREATEST PRESIDENT #2

I hope you enjoyed the tracks from The Count at the Chatterbox, the earliest live recording of Lester Young with the Basie band.

I know at least that my good friend alto player Paul Zec purchased the CD as a result of listening on the Music Page. He is of course a long-time fan and one of the very few people I know who can sing by heart the whole of Lester’s legendary solo on Lady be good from the Chicago “Jones-Smith Incorporated” session on November 9th, 1936. But I hope my website might also have converted any visitors who have not listened to Lester before.

So where next?

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Let’s consider the seven superb small-group sessions with the young Billie Holiday recorded between January 1937 and January 1938. The sides under name of Teddy Wilson (piano) were issued on the Brunswick label and those under Billie’s name on Vocalion.

The band was an octet including the vocalist, not a septet accompanying the vocalist. Billie functioned as one of the band and only took a chorus and a half-chorus on most tunes. That left solo space for trumpet (always Buck Clayton), clarinet (usually Buster Bailey) and piano (Teddy Wilson) as well as Pres.

Considering ,however, that each song had to be fitted on to a 3-minute 78rpm side, solo space for each instrument was restricted to 16 or 8 bars (occasionally 32).

The level of performance is consistently high from everybody. Benny Green once wrote in his classic book of essays The reluctant art that the result produced in every case a masterpiece.

Billie’s young, brave, wistful voice is enchanting and you can hear straight away that she phrases like a horn, in fact like Louis Armstrong! Lester’s contributions are brief but sublime. Many critics consider his work here to be superior to his solos with Basie. (Not sure about that….)

The material is fascinating. Contemporary tin-pan-alley, warts and all. Some of the lyrics are quite emotionally affecting (This year’s kisses/Foolin’ myself/He’s funny that way/Mean to me). Some are simply trite (Me,myself and I/A sailboat in the moonlight/Sun showers/I must have that man). The words in one or two cases and just hilarious: check out Now they call it swing and in particular the very first side they cut He ain’t got rhythm which I cannot resist printing in full for your delectation:

‘CAUSE HE AIN’T GOT RHYTHM, EVERY NIGHT HE SITS IN THE HOUSE ALONE

HE AIN’T GOT RHYTHM. EVERY NIGHT HE SITS THERE AND WEARS A FROWN

HE ATTRACTED SOME ATTENTION WHEN HE FOUND THE FOURTH DIMENSION

BUT HE AIN’T GOT RHYTHM SO NO-ONE’S WITH HIM - THE LONELIEST MAN IN TOWN

OH, LONELY MAN IS HE BENDING OVER HIS BOOKS.

HIS WIFE AND FAMILY KEEP GIVING HIM DIRTY LOOKS ‘CAUSE HE AIN’T GOT RHYTHM

WHEN THEY CALL HIM UP, IT’S TO CALL HIM DOWN

WITH THAT DARING AVIATOR HE ENCIRCLED THE EQUATOR

BUT HE AIN’T GOT RHYTHM SO NO-ONE’S WITH HIM - THE LONELIEST MAN IN TOWN!

 That’s all part of the nostalgic charm but the important point is the quality of the music and in particular the incredible rapport between Lester and Billie.

 

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His 28-bar solo on This year’s kisses, his lazy phrasing on Mean to me, his drive and originality on When you’re smiling are unforgettable. In some ways, however, because of his total empathy with Billie’s style, it is when he is playing obbligato behind her singing that the greatest heights are reached.

The dreamy A sailboat in the moonlight, where he takes an 8 bar solo and plays obbligato for 32 and 16 bars is exceptional.

 But what I have put up on the Music Page to complement this Musing are two takes of the more lively (and delightfully silly) Me, myself and I where he plays a chorus of obbligato. For years I got constant delight from playing the master take over and over – and then the alternate take at last became available. The first time I got my hands on it, I listened with mounting excitement waiting for the final Billie + Lester out chorus to see how this version compared.

Utterly different but equally brilliant. I can’t choose now – see if you can. (Happily, all the above sessions including many precious alternate takes are now readily available on CD.)

Lester’s last record date with Billie was in 1941. They stayed emotionally close friends. “She’ll always be my Lady Day” he later said. This nickname I assume derived from his weird habit of calling everybody Lady. Lady Tate, Lady Q (Quinichette) and Lady ‘Day (Holiday). Their romance was musical. In 1937/8, the one in the Basie band Billie fancied was Buck Clayton………….

 

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In December 1957, by which time each of them had lived a hard and destructive life and both would soon be dead, they both appeared on the CBS television show Sounds of jazz. Her feature was the slow blues Fine and mellow which she sang emotionally in her ruined voice. Lester, up second to the microphone after Ben Webster, played a searing, bleak chorus and the cameraman had the sensitive awareness to pan to a close up of Billie’s face as he reached the last two bars.

She nodded appreciatively and her eyes welled with tears.

 

 





Spike Wells