Billie Holiday and Lester Young: A Musical Romance

Billie Holiday and Lester Young
A Musical Romance

Like any good newsworthy event of the 20th century, one of the most touching pieces of jazz history happened in front of the television cameras. On 5 December 1957, CBS aired a jazz special, The Sound of Jazz, which brought together many of the living jazz superstars. Billie Holiday was to sing the song “Fine and Mellow” in a casual group setting. Holiday was close to death, though still one of the most attractive women in the world in her ponytail and plaid slacks. She had been courting a serious love affair with heroin for many years. Accompanying Holiday was a myriad of horn-playing legends. Of particular interest was the tenor sax section, which was comprised of Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, and Lester Young.

Lester Young and Billie Holiday were the Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris of the jazz world. The music the two of them made together was so achingly beautiful and so perfectly in synch it seemed impossible that they were not lovers. As with Gram and Emmylou, the exact nature of their relationship remains somewhat enigmatic. Young was the one who gave the nickname “Lady Day” to Holiday and she in turn called him “Prez”. Since the late 1930s, the two had made incredible music together and spent a great deal of time around the other. But they had had some sort of rift, perhaps over Holiday’s drug use, and had not spoken for years before the television special.

Prez, who had wrecked his body with alcohol, was in such ill health he couldn’t stand for the duration of the six-minute song. Holiday launched into the song and each sax man took a turn. Gerry Mulligan was first and played a solo in double-time. Webster was next, blowing a beautiful, breathy chorus. And then it was time for Prez. When it was Young’s turn he wearily stood up, and locked eyes with Holiday as she sang a song with lines like “Love is like a faucet / It turns off and on”. As Lady Day sang, Prez hit every note exactly in time with her and they took off like two eagles riding an air current as they rose higher and higher, way out of that studio and those television sets, circling around each other, Prez blowing the notes that sustained her as if he was the body to her soul, and then they came together in mid-air, as mating eagles will, and plummeted hundreds of feet earthward together, before breaking off and flying their separate ways. People in the control booth had tears in their eyes. It was the swan song of a bittersweet affection. After the show, the two had some brief backstage conversation and then they bid goodbye. They each had less than two years to live. Prez would die alone in a New York hotel, his body finally calling it quits. Not long after that, Holiday would be arrested on her deathbed for heroin possession.

CBS has released a new collection of Holiday-Young collaborations called A Musical Romance. Critiquing Billie Holiday is like finding fault with Shakespeare. The worst that could be said is that there are lesser works, maybe even forgettable ones, but songs like “Body and Soul”, “Strange Fruit”, and “Fine and Mellow” are every bit as powerful as Hamlet or Macbeth.

Young’s sax playing is the horn equivalent to Holiday’s voice; melancholy, melodic, and understated. Prez could dance solos around Holiday as well as he could support her when she delivered her own musical soliloquy. They seemed to anticipate the others movements just before they happened. Their musical lines flitted and flapped around one another, and occasionally they flew side by side. This set is a perfect place to introduce yourself to the music of either musician.

Most of the songs on this disc are from the late 1930s. The second song “This Year’s Kisses”, is from the first recording session Young and Holiday ever had together. Young’s playing is at times quick and full of notes, like much of the bebop of his time. At other times the silent space in a song becomes as essential as the notes themselves, which is an early development of the Hard Bop that was soon to dominate the scene.

And then comes the final song. It’s the very same version of “Fine and Mellow” recorded during the CBS show. It’s one of those songs that will never allow itself to be relegated to mere background music. It’s one of those songs that makes the hair stand out on the back of your neck. It’s recorded about 17 years later than any of the other songs on the disc. Billie’s voice betrays her weariness and Lester has just enough strength to make his one brief moment in the piece sound as timeless as the daily comings and goings of the ocean.

Holiday’s depiction of life, with Young’s musical encouragement, in “Laughing at Life” is that life is, like the song itself, a series of glorious, transcendent moments of joy. “Live for tomorrow / Be happy today / Laugh all your sorrows away / Start now and cheer up / The skies will clear up / Lose all your blues laughing at life.” It’s heartbreaking to know that the two would have trouble remembering that advice as a few more decades of life took its toll. Perhaps if they had been able to fully believe in that song, they both would not have died before their time. Whatever the exact nature of Young and Holiday’s romance may have been, it’s a pleasure to hear it.