Ride This Time Machine Down a Road Less Traveled

by Mark Reynolds

3 September 2009


Musical Gold Spun from Tin Pan Alley’s Wispiest Straw

Musical Gold Spun from Tin Pan Alley’s Wispiest Straw

Lester Young and Billie Holiday – Prez and Lady Day – were to song what Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were to dance. Separately they both were brilliant, but in each other’s company they approached the realm of the divine.

There were a couple of black sports milestones in 1959. Charlie Sifford became the first black golfer to receive a Professional Golfers Association tour card, and Wilt Chamberlain began his prodigious pro basketball career. But the moment most emblematic of the time was an ending, not a beginning.

On the face of it, the call-up of infielder Elijah Jerry “Pumpsie” Green to the Boston Red Sox meant little in the overall scheme of things. The Red Sox weren’t that spectacular that season, and Green’s big league career was unremarkable. But Green was black, and the call-up made him the first black to play for the Red Sox. And that made Boston the last major league baseball team to desegregate its roster (“Pumpsie Green throws out First Pitch” by Mike Petraglia, Boston Red Sox.com, 17 April 2009).

It had been a dozen years since Jackie Robinson made history for the Brooklyn Dodgers. History views the event, and rightly so, as a breakthrough achievement. In the time between Robinson’s debut and Green’s, all-time greats such as Willie Mays, Henry Aaron and Elston Howard, and a legion of second-tier performers, changed the face of baseball, and in turn America. But the institution that had nurtured black baseball since the ‘20s paid the price for that progress.

Robinson’s floodgate-opening triumph meant that the Negro Leagues no longer had much of a role to play. With baseball rosters (slowly) opening up for black talent, the Negro Leagues essentially lost their raison d’etre, and their fan base, too. Players could openly aspire to a major league career, and black fans could watch their favorite stars play at the sport’s highest level. By 1959, only four teams were left in the last league, the Negro American League. It would go out of business the next year.

Baseball would have some desegregating still to do (its first black umpire in 1966, its first black manager in 1975). And football’s Washington Redskins and basketball’s St. Louis Hawks would not add a black player for a couple of years hence. But black America stood boldly on the verge of new possibilities in 1959, and was in no mood to be nostalgic about anything that smacked of second-hand status. And thus did the Negro Leagues pass with barely a notice, not to be remembered fondly (if at all) until the mid-‘70s, when new research and scholarship sparked interest in the institution.

Every year, of course, has its passings. Some of the more noteworthy passings in 1959, like the slow death of the Negro Leagues, indicate that an era had finally ended. Kaplan notes how the death of President Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, opened the door for a change in the tone of US foreign policy. He also chronicles the years-in-the-making opening of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, with its controversial design by Frank Lloyd Wright, who died six months before his building opened.

Other notable passings of the year hearkened back to standards no longer in vogue: swashbuckling action hero Errol Flynn; film directors Cecil B. DeMille and Preston Sturges (when was the last time you saw those names in the same sentence?); World War II hero Gen. George C. Marshall. Those deaths seem to support Kaplan’s thesis that 1959 marked a major turning point in American life. But no clearer measure of the distance 1959 put between itself and the past exists than that in the year innovators spun jazz into dizzying new directions, jazz also lost its two most romantic figures, stalwarts of a style long since faded from prominence, dead from beaten-down spirits and broken hearts.

Tenor saxophonist Lester Young died on 15 March at the age of 49, just after arriving in New York from a series of dates in France where his alcoholic demons pretty much won their last battle. On the way to his funeral, vocalist Billie Holiday remarked, “I’ll be the next one to go.” Four months later, she indeed was gone, at only 44.

Young and Holiday – Prez and Lady Day – were to song what Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were to dance. Separately they both were brilliant, but in each other’s company they approached the realm of the divine.  Young’s warm tone and laconic flow matched Holiday’s off-the-beat delivery; they seemed to instinctively know how much even the slightest pause or inflection could convey, and never engaged in showy displays of technique, putting all their skills in service of investing each note they blew with sincerity and emotion.  On their sessions together, it is almost as though they complete each other’s phrases, so in tune are they with each other, existing on a plane slightly more exalted than their bandmates.

It was no secret that the years had been hard to both of them. They turned to drugs and alcohol to ease the pain of the racism and personal hardships they experienced. In their ‘30s heyday they reigned, but by the end, both were shadows of their former selves. No amount of studio production could mask how ravaged Holiday’s once-magnificent instrument sounded, while Young was reduced to playing gigs with pickup bands wherever he could, sometimes sounding great (a series of Washington, DC dates from 1956 recorded by pianist Bill Potts) but more often than not, anything but great.

In their prime, though, they spun musical gold from Tin Pan Alley’s wispiest straw. They defined small group swing for the ages in a series of studio dates during the ‘30s and early ‘40s, taking trite material like “Me, Myself and I” and “A Sailboat in the Moonlight” and, along with some of the greatest musicians of the day, creating timeless music that rose far above whatever hellhounds were on their respective trails.

So large a legacy does their combined work pose, and so revered is that legacy, that it seems odd there are only fewer than two dozen recorded examples of it. Sixteen are collected on Billie Holiday and Lester Young: A Musical Romance, a compilation Columbia distilled from its ten-cd Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia. All the’ 30s sides starring the duo are there, plus their final hurrah, a 1957 performance of “Fine and Mellow” that, for six sublime minutes, reminded one and all of the glorious music they made together.

Charles Mingus would pay tribute to Young with the composition “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”, a highlight of his ’59 album Mingus Ah Um (one of several fine jazz albums that year beyond the history makers in Kaplan’s book) and a standard of the jazz canon to this day. Holiday’s last pianist, Mal Waldron, would dance along the forward edge of jazz for more than 40 years, collaborating with artists from Eric Dolphy to David Murray. 

It seems sadly appropriate that this most majestic, tragic pair would be linked in death as well as in music. And if moments of new beginnings are sometimes also moments when other things end, it would seem like a marker of the times – theirs and ours – that their deaths would come in a year when so many new ideas and movements were being born. 

Jazz had long ago left Young’s and Holiday’s swing era in its rearview mirror, and was about to bid adieu to the bebop that supplanted swing. Following the advances of ’59, it would take all manner of twists and turns, move through numerous styles, revivals, phases and is-jazz-dead arguments, and spawn great sax players and singers galore. But none like Prez or Lady Day, and certainly nothing at all like their unspoken magic as the star-crossed lovers of American popular art.

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