Billie Holiday: Fine And Mellow

“I summed up all existence in an epigram,” Oscar Wilde once bragged; Lester Young doesn’t quite capture all existence in his single 36-second blues chorus, but he certainly sums up his entire musical life in those few flawless phrases. Even today, 50 years after his death, Young’s economy is still startling: listening to the busy, swooping Ben Webster solo that precedes him leaves one quite unprepared for what Prez will do.

There is little to add to the legend of Young and Holiday’s last performance together: how they staked out positions on opposite sides of the room during rehearsal, then locked eyes during Young’s broadcast solo as the producers looked on and wept; how they were both ravaged from hard living and would be dead within less than two years. Their art was intact, and for those few minutes on national television, the two old friends and partners once again put light into each other’s lives.

August 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Billie Holiday: Fine and Mellow (Sound of Jazz, 1957)

This is generally acknowledged as the greatest jazz moment ever broadcast on national television. And with good reason. Billie Holiday is joined by an all-star band and delivers a deeply felt version of "Fine and Mellow." This was a song that Holiday seemed to sing better with the passing years - not a claim one could make for most of her repertoire. But this is a world-weary composition, and no lady was more worldly or weary than Billie Holiday, circa 1957. Lester Young delivers a touching solo that even moves the vocalist. His TV studio reunion with Holiday may have inspired him, but I have a hunch that the proximity of Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster in the room (these being the real three tenors by the measure of any swing jazz fan) may have had something to do with it too. If TV were always this good, we could get rid of our iPods.

February 11, 2008 · 2 comments


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