AMERICA'S ALL-TIME GREATEST PRESIDENT #4
THE LOST YEARS - WHERE DID HE GO? 1941-1943
We left our hero at the end of the last episode on an inauspicious day - Friday 13th December 1940, when superstition apparently kept him away from a recording session and he was forced to quit the Basie band.
What happened next? Not a lot, unfortunately.
In the new year, he formed a quintet with his ex-Basie mate trumpeter Shad Collins and some younger modernists like Clyde Hart (p) John Collins (g) and Nick Fenton (bs). They rehearsed regularly in the basement of the Woodside Hotel where Pres had played so many residencies in the Basie reed section but there were no gigs.
After a month or so, they got a job opposite Coleman Hawkins at Kelly's Stables but it didn't last long because sensitive Lester was jostled and insulted by a waiter. The trigger-point was probably that Lester befriended a light-skinned singer called Una Mae Carlisle and used her as a dep for Clyde Hart on piano. The boss was a crow, said Lester. He didn't like mixing.
Anyway, Una Mae invited the quintet to accompany her on a record date and the resultant four sides are fascinating. We hear Lester at his peak with a beautifully soft, light tone providing gorgeous obbligato and solos. One of the songs has lyrics as preposterously surreal as He ain't got rhythm, recorded by Billie Holiday and Lester in 1937.
This one, topically geared to World War II (although before Pearl Harbour) is also worth quoting in full for your delectation:
Blitzkrieg baby, you can't bomb me 'cause I'm pleadin' neutrality.
Got my gun out, can't you see? Blitzkrieg baby you can't bomb me!
Blitzkrieg baby you look so cute all dressed up in your parachute.
Let that propaganda be Blitzkrieg baby you can't bomb me!
I'll give you warnin' 'cause I'm afraid I'll have to raid
So take my warnin' or else you'll get this handgrenade!
Blitzkrieg baby, you can't bomb me. Better save up your TNT.
I don't want no infantry. Blitzkrieg baby, you can't bomb me.
- and she sings it so sexily! Check it out on the Music page.
The only other studio recording Lester made in 1941 was a similarly bizarre affair under the name of "Sammy Price and his Bluesicians", again just four sides (one of the titles substitutes Lead me daddy straight to the bar for the expected Beat me daddy eight to the bar). Again, Lester plays magnificently, leaving us gagging for more of his sound in 1941.
In New York Lester was apparently jamming at Monroe's and Minton's with the pioneers of be-bop but nothing survives. He was earning no money and had no recording contract.
Someone helpfully suggested that he form a big band of his own! His reply is not only a classic example of Pres-speak but offers an insight into his personality:
"Oooh I'd love to but I wouldn't go for the okeydoke - them headaches, them evil spirits. I can barely make it with five. Like the old lady told me, there's always a bastard in the bunch, and you never know who it is."
Indeed he couldn't make it with five. He had to dissolve his quintet and appeal to his brother in Los Angeles, drummer Lee Young, to come to his rescue.
Lee was an efficient and successful bandleader with a group called "The Esquires of Rhythm" featuring a local hero Bumps Myers on tenor. Nevertheless, he invited Lester to come out to the coast and join them.
To start with, there was a hassle over a local union card and Pres suffered the indignity of being forced to play only a limited part of the evening and this from the floor below the bandstand. He consoled himself with hanging around outside the stagedoor smoking weed and drinking his"Boilermaker"concoction: a base of 151-proof rum topped up with Rainier ale.
Eventually, things were sorted out and they formed "Lee and Lester's band" which worked, and broadcast from, Hollywood clubs including the famous Billy Berg's, later to host Diz and Bird.
In July 1942, Norman Granz organised a one-off recording in a little record shop/studio for Lester with the Nat King Cole trio. Guitarist Oscar Moore never showed up so Lester played with just piano and bass. The results are good but somehow a bit odd. Lester's sound is much thicker and heavier than in all other contemporary examples culled from club broadcasts.
Come August, Lee and Lester's band moved to New York and worked at the Café Society Downtown until they were knackered. The hours were 8pm to 4am every night!
Then the news came that their father had died and the band split up with Lee returning to the West Coast to deal with the family affairs. Lester wanted to stay in New York but there was no work. Eventually he had to join the Al Sears band for a wartime USO tour in the Spring of 1943.
Now we come full circle. The Basie band had of course still been touring and recording and the main tenor soloist was by now Don Byas. But Byas was a drunk and prone to violence and one night he produced a gun in the Lincoln Hotel. Basie had to get rid of him and asked Lester's close friend drummer Jo Jones if he could possibly persuade Pres to come back.
And so at the end of November 1943 there he suddenly was, with a minimum of fuss and very little said, back in his old chair and playing his magic solos again.
And there he stayed. But not happily ever after. Just for ten months or so until a tap on the shoulder from an FBI agent rounding people up for the draft led to Lester's nightmare spell in the US army…………………… [to be continued]