Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Lester Young & Billie Holiday: the Krishna and Radha of Jazz

We'll overlook the fact that Lord Krishna played flute instead of tenor sax, but the divine (and platonic) love that is central to the story of Krishna and Radha is similar to the complex and deep relationship that the Prez and Lady Day enjoyed. And, it is also legendary in the history of jazz.

The Prez and Lady Day at their last session together

My intent isn't to delve too deeply into Lester or Billie, but to remind those who know, and introduce those who don't, to their incredible synergy.

For those who are not familiar, here are a few links to background information that will catch you up:

In addition, there are a few articles about them as a musical unit that are worth reading: Billie and Lester against the world is a touching retrospective by James Maycock, while Marc Myers' Lester Young, Singer gives insights about why Lester and Billie were magic together. However, words cannot convey that magic (or the Krishna and Radha connection) nearly as well as this 1957 session that was to prove to be their last together:

This excellent article, Reunion written by Joe Milazzo sums up that session perfectly.

Billie probably said it better than anyone:

Lester sings with his horn. You listen to him and can almost hear the words. People think he's so cocky and secure, but you can hurt his feelings in two seconds. I know, because I found out once that I had. from Lady Sings the Blues by Billie Holiday and William Duffy

On their first meeting, in Lester's own words:

As for their estrangement prior to this session, Donald Clarke alludes to the cause in Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon:
In early 1951, Lady met Lester Young in Philadelphia, and thereafter did not see him for three years, as she wallowed in drugs and he withdrew in alcohol, each seeking release from several kinds of pain ... at the Newport 1954 reunion, Lester Young had refused to play with her. Gerry Mulligan did and Down Beat magazine hinted that Mulligan's baritone sax had stung Lester into taking his rightful place: He shuffled on stage and once again was part of a Billie presentation. They later embraced in the dressing room and the feud was over.
Another book that covers much of Lester's and Billie's relationship is Lester Leaps In: The Life and Times of Lester "Pres" Young, which is essential reading for any Lester Young fan. You can read an interview with the author, Douglas Henry Daniels, as well as excerpts from the book on this page.

Before recommending albums that showcase the Prez and Lady Day I'll add a few of my favorites from Youtube for your enjoyment:

Recommended listening: The aptly titled, A Musical Romance is one of my favorites, while a more comprehensive, 2 CD set titled Complete Recordings, features Lester and Billie on 42 tracks. It just doesn't get any better.

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