Billie Holiday on The Sound of Jazz
I'm preparing a guest lecture for Professor Jason Robinson's Jazz Film class at Amherst College tomorrow. I'll be speaking on the Hollywood bio pics "Lady Sings the Blues" (Diana Ross as Billie Holiday) and "Bird" (Forest Whitaker as Charlie Parker), neither of which offers anything to compare with Lady Day's celebrated filmed performance of "Fine and Mellow.". It comes from The Sound of Jazz, a high-water mark in television history which Robert Herridge produced for the CBS series, The Seven Lively Arts. Nat Hentoff and the late Whitney Balliett served as music consultants, and they recruited a Who's Who of mainstream jazz greats for the show.
Among the participants were a triumvarite of Swing Era tenor saxophonists: Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, and Lester Young. Billie and Ben were old friends who first recorded together in 1935 and are captured in youthful exuberance in a classic photo taken in the alley behind the Apollo Theatre in the mid-30's. Billie and Lester enjoyed a "musical romance" that blossomed in 1937 when pianist Teddy Wilson began hiring members of the Count Basie Orchestra for the recordings he was making with Holiday at the time. Billie and Lester's friendship dated from 1934, when he first came to New York for an ill-fated venture succeeding Hawkins in Fletcher Henderson's orchestra, and she was an early champion of Lester's lighter tone and daring rhythmic conception. Billie nicknamed him "Pres;" Lester in turn called her "Lady Day."
Prez and Lady Day are among the tragic figures of jazz. By 1957 booze, drugs, and Jim Crow had taken their toll on each, and neither outlasted the decade. Lester looked especially weak in his appearance on The Sound of Jazz., but he summoned the strength to rise from his chair to play a solo that Nat Hentoff has written about ever since:
"Lester got up, and he played the purest blues I have ever heard, and he and Billie 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."
I've always been impressed by another, somewhat overlooked solo on "Fine and Mellow," that by the trombonist Vic Dickenson, who wrings a sweet smile from Billie as she savors his lyrical playing on this classic blues which you can see here.