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February 29, 2008

Lady Day

By: Bernard Chazelle

What would life be without YouTube?

The Dream Team of jazz gets together for a gig, and there's no doubt who's the star: Billie Holiday. Such was her aura that everyone who was anyone in jazz would have dropped everything just to be on a set with her. This 12-bar blues gives all the musicians a chance to stretch out and show what they've got: Ben Webster with his amazing melodic gift --who else besides Charlie Parker can pack so many melodic ideas in so little space?-- followed by Lester Young, Vic Dickenson, Gerry Mulligan (on his baritone sax: what a tone!), Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, etc.

Lester Young (among the most underrated giants of jazz -- along with Benny Carter) is minimalist to a fault. Watch the look on Billie Holiday's face at 2:56... To make sense of the scene you need to know two things: first, the two were romantically involved in an on-and-off fashion (listen to her: "Love is like a faucet, it turns off and on"); second, he phrases his solo just the way she sings. He does it intentionally and you know she knows. And he knows that she knows that he knows that she knows. Hence the look on her face.

Billie Holiday is probably the most influential jazz singer ever. We're so used to it now it's easy to miss how extraordinary her timing is: she phrases like a horn player (much like Louis Armstrong). Just as all rock guitarists, whether they know it or not, try to sound like BB King, every jazz singer turns to Billie Holiday to find out how it's done.

I won't go here into the giant, epic misery that was Billie Holiday's life.

Some of you thought I might choose Strange Fruit instead. I almost did. But it's too damn heart-wrenching. Another day.

Posted at February 29, 2008 07:17 PM

If Rob Payne reads this and feels like chiming in with some technical (or nontechnical) comments about the playing, that'd be great.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at February 29, 2008 08:01 PM

Hi Bernard,
Another great piece of music with all those greats in one setting. After Hawkins left the Count Basie band Lester Young replaced him and at first oddly enough the other band members didn’t care for his style which was quite different from that of Hawkins. I love Lester Young’s playing as did my teacher Don Raffell who felt Young could play circles around Hawkins and said that Lester Young’s best playing was never recorded. I don’t say this to get into a Hawkins versus Young thing as I like them both. And of course Young was one of Bird’s influences, some people said that Bird played just like Young except faster. Interestingly Lester Young’s son said his father also played alto but when he began playing the tenor sax that was when he began playing with the understated style he is known for. Lester Young used to say that when you play a solo you need to tell a story much like Holiday does when she sings the blues, a neat way of saying music should be logical. Watching this video you can see the difference between Hawkins’ growly chordal playing in great contrast to Lester’s more hollow sound and style which influenced so many from Stan Getz to Dexter Gordon. In fact I have an album of a very early Dexter where he sounds exactly like Young, so much so I have wondered if they did not get the credits wrong. It happens as I recall the video you posted of Bird and Hawkins playing Ballad. On an album with that cut on it they attribute the tenor part to Ben Webster but in the video you can see it was Coleman Hawkins who was playing tenor. I memorized Hawkins’ solo on that cut about twenty years ago and until I saw the video I had thought it was Ben Webster! Thanks for posting these great musicians.

Posted by: rob payne at February 29, 2008 09:51 PM


Thanks for the correction. There is a series of recordings on the Pablo label of Lester Young playing in Washington D.C. near the end of his life. They are quite good if you don’t already have them in your collection, he is playing with a group who really compliment his style.

Posted by: rob payne at March 1, 2008 12:45 AM

Speaking of prez, did you guys ever catch Joshua Redman's cover of Tickletoe (outtakes of Altman's Kansas City)? What a thrill.

Did you notice how Lester Young doesn't hold his sax sideways the way he does it with Basie?

ChrisR: I believe DB Blues goes back to the racism he experienced in the Army (DB as in detention barracks). He was not allowed to play the sax there: "not good enough"... That's the great thing about armies: they never change.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at March 1, 2008 01:13 AM

Rob: I've often heard that Bird played the alto like a tenor. I think I see what it means for a listener, but I am not sure I understand what that means from a player's perspective.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at March 1, 2008 01:21 AM

I didn’t catch Redman’s cover of Tickletoe but I am sure it must have been good, Redman is super talented. I did catch him in San Francisco one night under very sad circumstances. Michael Brecker was supposed to play that night but he was too sick to show up and Redman took his place. Soon after that Brecker passed away and what a shame that was. Brecker in my opinion was really playing some ground breaking music he was a real monster.

I play alto, tenor, and soprano but I don’t believe I play them with any conceptual difference. Since tenor is a bigger horn it has less back pressure than the alto but other than that they are the same from a playing standpoint. There are a few recordings of Bird playing tenor and they sound like Bird except on tenor. I also have a recording of Coltrane playing alto and he sounds just like Coltrane except on alto. There are players who claim there is a difference but I am not quite convinced that there is or what that difference would be. Perhaps people are confusing a given player’s style and the horn they associate that player with more than any difference between alto and tenor.

Posted by: rob payne at March 1, 2008 03:43 AM

I just wanted to add that when people say Bird sounded like Lester Young I don’t believe it is so much which horn Lester Young played it is more along the lines of Young’s concept of Jazz. Parker always claimed that his goal was to play “clean” as in less use of vibrato, bending of notes, and growling with more emphasis on melodic content much like the solo Young played in the video. Though Parker made use of building chords on top of chords extending the harmonic range of Jazz he was a very “inside” player and perhaps more linear than earlier players. He still made chord tones the important notes of his improvising but this was accomplished by playing chord tones on the downbeats and non chord tones on the upbeats generally which allowed him to be more linear. Parker also relied on the use of rhythmic figures. Some have suggested that he played like a drummer which perhaps is a result of his ability to accent any note anywhere in his phrases at will.

Posted by: rob payne at March 1, 2008 09:22 AM

Rob: It's always made a lot of sense to me when people say the bebop revolution was first rhythmic, then harmonic. Actually I really believe that.

There is a story that Lester Young's horrific experience in the military ruined his playing and the telltale sign is that he started accentuating his vibrato again.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at March 1, 2008 12:32 PM

Thanks for the vid. My 11 year old son just happened to be home, so I managed to catch his attention long enough to share Lady Day's beautiful voice. I may never turn him into a jazzer, but maybe he will appreciate a bit more why the music is just so damned amazing.


Posted by: James at March 1, 2008 01:32 PM

I heard the same thing about Lester Young that it was his experience with the army that affected him deeply. Of course for some players their style changes with time as a natural progression and my impression of Lester Young was that he did not believe that playing a million notes a minute was the direction he wanted to go in though he certainly had the technique to do so. There is a story that he was traveling in a band with Sonny Stitt and on the bus Stitt was practicing his fast bebop style and then turned to lester Young and asked him what he thought of it. Lester told him that you had to tell a story in order to connect with listeners, I am paraphrasing from memory (and we know how good that is) but I always liked that story.

Posted by: rob payne at March 1, 2008 04:25 PM

Those would be the albums I mentioned. Interestingly the version I read was from a different biography on Stan Getz I read about four or five years ago and in that version Lester told Stitt that he had to tell a story, that Stan Getz always told a story, but I imagine there may be as many versions of this as there are people who witnessed it. Getz was a strange soul apparently given to a violent temper and supposedly people never knew when it would emerge. When Zoot Sims was asked what he thought of Stan Getz he replied “He is a nice group of people.”

Posted by: rob payne at March 2, 2008 07:55 PM


It doesn't surprise me that you saw a different version of that story. Try, for example, to figure how or why Lester Young left (or--depending on the source--was fired from) the Basie band. But part of the fun of jazz anecdotes is puzzling over the different versions.

At least the Young/Stitt stories have the same essential message. Don't just play notes--tell a story (or sing a song).

Posted by: ChrisR at March 4, 2008 02:34 PM