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Sunday, 21 October 2012

Fine and Mellow

I love Youtube. I think it’s just amazing how it lets anyone watch different obscure historic gems.  One great example is 1957 CBS television broadcast - a session with some big names in jazz. Musicians in this video are Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Gerry Mulligan, Roy Eldrige and some others. For those who don’t know much about jazz history, you were supposed to go “Wow!” after reading this, because these are some of the biggest names in jazz history. So without further ado, this is it. Let yourself be amazed.

It would be fun to watch this video just for the sake of seeing all these musicians play together, but that’s some potent music right there. And if you know anything about the relationship between Billie Holiday and Lester Young, then this is truly priceless. If you don’t know what I mean, let me start at the beginning.

Billie Holiday is considered to be one of the greatest female jazz singers of all time and if you’re listening to her for the first time, that may be hard to believe. The first time I heard her, I didn’t really like her and I didn’t get it what’s supposed to be so special about her. I mean her voice isn’t clean like Ella Fitzgerald’s for example and her vocal range is only one octave. But after listening to her more closely one or two times I began loving her singing. Today, she’s probably one of my favourite female singers of all time. And if I stay with Ella for a second, I love her too and I think her singing is just beautiful, but Billie Holiday has so much emotion in her singing that it’s just heartbreaking.
Her life was a tragic one and that’s an integral part of her singing and her music. She was born in 1915 to a 13 year old mom. Early in her life she was raped and when she was 14 she was already a prostitute. For her whole life she had drug and alcohol problems and she always ended up being with guys that beat her up and abused her.
Listening to her songs, you can quickly notice that most of the time she not only sang them but unfortunately lived them as well. For example Good Morning Heartache, I’m a Fool To Want You, Solitude, I Must Have That Man and many others.
She wrote and co-wrote only a few songs but every song she sang, she made it her own. A lot of times there is also a part of her life in her songs; She wrote God Bless the Child after she had an argument with her mom, who didn’t want to pay her back any of the money Billie lent her. Whenever she sang Strange Fruit (a poignant song about racism), she thought about her father who died because he was denied treatment due to his race.

Lester Young, one of the best and most influential saxophone players in jazz history, met Billie Holiday early in her career and they became fast friends. When they were touring together with the Count Basie orchestra, they were always drinking together, having a laugh together and so on. He was the one that named her Lady Day and in return she nicknamed him Pres as in The President.
They admired each other musically - she said that she wanted to sound like he does on the saxophone and he said that many times he studied her singing. And when you listen to Fine and Mellow, that’s exactly what you hear - they are like two parts of the same voice. They were similar in so many different ways. Both were depressed but they both always tried to hide it with a smile. They both had self-destructive tendencies such as drug addiction. They just had a special rapport and understood each other like no one else. She knew what he was all about and vice versa, which resulted in some amazing music they’ve recorded together.
Around 1950 however, they had an argument and they’ve stopped talking. So when they filmed this video in 1957, they hadn’t been talking to each other for some time.
Here’s where the real value of this video starts coming up. At that time they both had big problems with their health (or rather problems with their drug addictions). She wasn’t anything like she was in her younger days. She was unreliable, fragile and her voice was weak, and it all showed in her performances. He was quite ill as well, and for the whole session he was staying more or less in the back. The solo in Fine and Mellow actually wasn’t scripted. The marvelous thing is that you can’t see any of this in the video itself - you couldn’t tell their condition was bad just from seeing this video. She magically finds the power to sing like she did in the good old days and Lester just stands up and decides on the spot he’ll take a solo. And when he does it’s the smoothest thing you’ll ever hear. Listen again and also pay attention to her reaction to the solo. It feels like she’s remembering all the things between them and she can still understand exactly what he’s trying to say, even if they aren’t talking. There’s simply amazing energy between them.

In 1959, two years after the session, Lester died and 4 months later, Billie followed. People are still writing about their enigmatic relationship, musical and personal, today, but they will always be the only ones who understood the magic that was between them.


  1. Learning about Billie and Lester's story and the context of the 1957 recording makes Lester's solo even more touching. I love it.

    1. Lester's solo gets even better with every listening :) I'm glad you enjoyed it!


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