Lady Day and the Prez
This week I dug Billie Holiday’s 1956 memoir, Lady Sings the Blues. For some reason I generally don’t go for stuff like this, but — as with Charles Mingus’ autobiography — I had to pick up the book because I figured that someone who spoke so deeply through her music wouldn’t do a bad job in print.
And I was basically right; it was both a good read and a surprisingly insightful commentary on some of the adversity she faced (with some credit due to the articulation of her ghostwriter, William Duffy). Not just about the brand of mid-20th century racism that was as much a staple of the jazz repertoire as a standard like “All of Me,” but also regarding other pretty edgy sociological stuff, like some side bits about the hopelessness of imprisoning all of the nation’s impoverished drug addicts.
Long story short, it’s worth a look — especially if you can get it for two bucks at your local used bookstore. (Mine was the 1972 promo paperback edition, featuring “exclusive” photos from the Diana Ross–Richard Pryor movie adaptation, which came out that year. Fun stuff.)
But I was pretty sure I knew what my favorite part what was going to be before even opening the thing, and I was right about that too. It was the part about Lester Young.
For those who don’t know, Lester Young was one of the smoothest, hippest cats to ever walk the earth, and one of the most lyrical tenor saxophonists to ever pick up the instrument. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, he was first person to use the word “cool” to describe something that he thought was, well, cool. He was like the Depression-era version of Lil’ Wayne, or maybe Michael Jackson from the ‘80s.
Lester Young was also the guy who gave Billie Holiday her most famous name — Lady Day — while he was living with her and her mother in Harlem in the early ‘30s. Holiday, in turn, decided to call him the President (which was eventually whittled down to Prez) because, as she says in her book, “I always felt that he was the greatest, so his name had to be the greatest.”
The trivia-type stuff, though, isn’t really what I like about that part of Lady Sings the Blues. It’s her descriptions of his playing — and especially their musical work together — that really got me. And not just because the records they produced together in the ‘30s (along with some equally badass players like Teddy Wilson and Freddie Green) comprise some of the best shit you’re ever going to hear.
Prez and Lady Day had this connection, this friendship, that was so purely based on the way they interacted through the music — they were never romantically involved — that I don’t think there’s anything quite like it going on today. Not that that’s such an awful thing; there are plenty of groups these days, jazz and otherwise, that have equally deep bonds, and it shows in the music. But it’s just different. And that’s how I felt as I read the book.
Relationships between musicians these days — whether they’re good, bad, sexy or just kind of weird and awkward — tend to get played up as these pseudo-reality TV show stories that exist outside the music itself, but seem to do more to define the artists than their own tunes. As a journalist, and one who tries to write about music once in a while, I can say that it doesn’t surprise me; it’s just a result of the general public being bombarded with images and overly-provocative headlines, now that the digital world makes it both possible and necessary to be everywhere at once. It’s really hard to make someone listen to you if you’re not offering up something particularly juicy, riveting or offensive.
I honestly couldn’t name an album put out by either Chris Brown or Rihanna (this is where I put on my snobby face), but I just found out all I need to know about them by Googling their names together. And in case you’re wondering, he’s currently using her family to win her back.
When I did the same thing for Jack and Meg White — two people who I can say collaborated for years to produce some really awful, over-hyped, pointless music — I found more crappy articles about petty relationship issues regarding their breakup than what I assume are the equally crappy articles about their actual music.
Isn’t that seriously fucking lame?
So, yeah, it’s fun to read what Billie Holiday has to say about her experiences with Lester Young, even though they’re both long dead and certainly aren’t at risk of becoming immortalized in some viral video or gossip new feature. That’s kind of the point. I’m never one to knock the digital age; but there are some things that are just better left untouched — like the tunes themselves — for us readers to sigh at. And, in the end, it’s all about the music, the personality and the life of their music, thus:
For my money Lester was the world’s greatest. I loved his music, and some of my favorite recordings are the ones with Lester’s pretty solos.
I remember how the late Herschel Evans used to hate me. Whenever Basie had an arranger work out something for me, I’d tell him I wanted Lester to solo behind me. That always made Herschel salty. It wasn’t that I didn’t love his playing. It was just that I liked Lester’s more.
Lester sings with his horn; you listen to him and can almost hear the words. People think he’s cocky and secure, but you can hurt his feelings in two seconds. I know, because I found out once that I had. We’ve been hungry together, and I’ll always love him and his horn.”