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The moving performance of Billie Holiday & Lester Young on ‘The Sound of Jazz’ TV program

Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday

The last time Billie Holiday and Lester Young appeared together was in 1957, fifteen months before his death, when they were both included in a television program featuring some of the most revered figures in jazz. “The best thing that ever happened to television,” author Eric Larrabee wrote in Harper’s Magazine at the time, “happened on CBS between 5 and 6 in the afternoon on December 8, [1957]. It was an installment in The Seven Lively Arts series called ‘The Sound of Jazz,’ and as far as I’m concerned you can throw away all previous standards of comparison.” Critics and fans shared the sentiment, marveling at the lineup of talent. Among the thirty-two prominent names were Thelonious Monk, Count Basie, Mal Waldron, Roy Eldridge, Doc Cheatham, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Gerry Mulligan, Danny Barker, Milt Hinton, Osie Johnson, Jo Jones, Vic Dickenson, Jim Atlas, Jimmy Giuffre, Lester Young—and, the only woman included on the show, Billie Holiday. Producer Robert Herridge had hired as executive producers for the program Nat Hentoff, Whitney Balliett, and Charles H. Schultz, who were instrumental in bringing together the stellar assortment of talent.

Lester was supposed to be featured on the program, but when the musicians gathered for a rehearsal on the fifth, which was recorded by Columbia Records for release in February, Lester showed up looking run-down and ill. “[Young] was waiting, alone and weak, in an empty room next to the studio,” Hentoff wrote. “I told him that he didn’t have to be, as scheduled, in the reed section of the Count Basie/All-Star Orchestra. . . . He nodded and told me he was up to the small group session, later in the show, featuring Billie Holiday.”

On the day of the show, which was broadcast live from the CBS Studio 58 in Manhattan, a problem emerged. “Only one of the [musicians] caused trouble,” Hentoff wrote. “During a sound check, Herridge received a note from a representative of the sponsor, read it, and tore it up. He paraphrased the message for me and Whitney: ‘We must not put into America’s homes, especially on Sunday, someone who’s been imprisoned for drug use.’ Herridge told the bearer of the note that if Billie Holiday could not go on, he, Whitney, and I would leave.” The show proceeded as planned, but once again Billie had been singled out as a target for derision.

Billie Holiday - Fine And Mellow - The Sound of Jazz

The show began, and when it came time for the segment devoted to Billie, John Crosby, a writer with the New York Herald Tribune who served as host—he wore an understated suit and tie—spoke to the camera in a studied, deadpan tone. “Billie Holiday,” he said, “is one of a handful of really great jazz singers. Her blues are poetic, highly intense. Playing with her today are some of the musicians who accompanied her back in the thirties on some of the greatest jazz records ever made.”

Then, in a prerecorded voice-over, Billie began talking: “The blues to me is like being very sad, very sick, going to church, being very happy. There’s two kinds of blues. There’s happy blues, and there’s sad blues.” Wearing slacks and a matching white blouse and sweater, her hair pulled back in her usual ponytail, she walked out and sat on a stool in the middle of the musicians, many of whom over the years had become close friends and confidants. As she prepared for her performance, the voice-over continued. “I don’t think I ever sing the same way twice. I don’t think I ever sing the same tempo. I don’t know—the blues is just sort of a mixed-up thing. You have to feel it. Anything I do sing, it’s part of my life.”

The musicians started with the instrumental opening of “Fine and Mellow.” After Billie sang the first verse—slow and emotive—Ben Webster launched into a smooth, melodic chorus. Then came the moment when Lester, who was seated on a stool because of his health, stood and stepped forward and blew, with a deliberate and elegant tone, a hypnotic chorus which so enthralled Billie she looked on with wonderment and affection. When their eyes met for a brief magical instant that could have only come from the love they felt for each other, the expression on Billie’s face was that of someone transfixed by the moment, the music, the musician making it. All the “pretty solos” he had played behind her in the past seemed to be contained in this one effervescent interlude of music. She nodded with approval as she listened, and when the solo ended—it lasted only thirty-five seconds, but it told the story of a musical romance that had gone on now for almost a quarter of a century—Billie segued into her next verse. There would be additional solos in the performance—from Coleman Hawkins, Gerry Mulligan, Vic Dickenson—yet the most memorable one was when Prez played for Billie for what turned out to be the final time. After the show, they visited with each other in the dressing room; then they said goodbye.

From Bitter Crop © 2024 by Paul Alexander. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Listen to the excerpt read by Maya Days:

Audio excerpted courtesy Penguin Random House Audio from Bitter Crop: The Heartache and Triumph of Billie Holiday's Last Year by Paul Alexander, read by Maya Days.

PAUL ALEXANDER has published eight books, among them Rough Magic, a biography of Sylvia Plath, and Salinger, a biography of J. D. Salinger that was the basis of a documentary that appeared on American Masters on PBS, Netflix, and HBO. His nonfiction has appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, Newsday, New York, The Guardian, The Nation, The Washington Post, and Rolling Stone. He teaches at Hunter College in New York.