Arts: Billie and Lester against the world

Forty years ago today, Billie Holiday died, four months after her friend and collaborator, the saxophonist Lester Young. Theirs was an extraordinary relationship. By James Maycock

James Maycock
Wednesday 14 July 1999 23:02

In Paris, a couple of weeks before his harrowing death in 1959, Lester Young spoke of Billie Holiday, mournfully commenting, "She's still my Lady Day." On 13 March, suffering from stabbing pains in the stomach, he impulsively returned to New York. On the aeroplane he began to vomit blood. Surviving an agonising eight-hour flight, Young arrived at the Alvin Hotel and resumed drinking in his room which faced Birdland. After sinking into unconsciousness, he momentarily awoke, sluggishly moving his fingers and lips as if playing the saxophone, before dying.

At his funeral, the family of Young's estranged wife refused to let Billie Holiday sing. Close to hysteria, she muttered incessantly: "Those motherfuckers won't let me sing for Pres." On top of her addiction to heroin and alcohol, his death aggravated Billie Holiday's own deteriorating health and she confided ominously to a friend: "I'll be the next to go." She was to die four months later, on 15 July.

The intensely intimate but wholly platonic quarter-century relationship between Lester Young and Billie Holiday was publicly recognised during their lifetime. Aishah Rahman's musical Lucky Day focused on the personal and musical affinity between them, and last year the black American poet Kamau Daaoud included "Balm of Gilead (For Billie Holiday and Lester Young)" on his album Leimert Park. Today he confirms: "Their friendship arose from this common understanding of the nature of the world that they lived in, and the nature of the pain that they had to struggle through to do what they had to do." Indeed, their slow physical and mental disintegration from the mid-1940s on was uncannily alike as they wrestled with their respective addictions, racism and their complex characters.

Young, one of the most imaginative tenor saxophonists of this century, was a shy man who disguised his delicate temperament behind a bitter- sweet smile. He also invented an idiosyncratic language as a means of protecting himself from the world. This maddened one of his booking agents, who exclaimed: "I'd talk to him and all he'd say was `bells' or `ding, ding'!" Lester Young was the originator of the term "bread" for money and habitually called men and women "lady". He was, of course, the man who nicknamed Billie Holiday, "Lady Day" and she, in turn, called him "Pres" because, as she herself explained: "I always felt he was the greatest, so his name had to be the greatest... I started calling him `The President'."

The pair met in 1934 following Young's arrival in New York to join Fletcher Henderson's group. Holiday invited him to live with her and her mother after he discovered a rat in one of the drawers in his hotel room in Harlem. In her autobiography, Holiday recalled: "He'd come by the joints where I was singing, to hear me or sit in."

By 1937, they had recorded independently of each other, but in the first month of that year they started recording some startlingly elegant music together, displaying an unparalleled musical compatibility that verged on telepathy. Today George Avakian, the jazz producer who befriended both of them, stresses: "The session in which she did `A Sailboat in the Moonlight' is really the one that expresses their closeness, musically and spiritually, more than any other." Holiday admitted that she wanted to sing in the style in which Young improvised, while he often studied her lyrics closely before playing a song. Up to 1941, they continued recording music together which was released under the names of either Teddy Wilson and his orchestra, Billie Holiday and her Orchestra or Count Basie and his Orchestra. It was in the late 1930s that Young and Holiday's relationship was perhaps at its most cohesive. They toured together with Count Basie's orchestra, gambling on the tour bus and frequently drinking a mixture of port and gin which they called a "top and bottom" and smoking marijuana.

Despite the gruelling nature of the tours, this was a dynamic period for Young and Holiday, and the other musicians were immensely fond of them. Benny Morton, the trombonist, said: "You never got an idea that she wasn't enjoying life, but to me this was a cover-up. The laughter, - this was a top; this also goes for Lester. He was one of the nicest men I've ever known, so very kind, but I think he felt the world had short- changed him." Although Holiday's personality was more extrovert than Young's, they were both insecure and sensitive individuals, traits that became increasingly pronounced in the 1940s.

Today, Daaoud suspects that, "the whole drug scene, the alcohol thing which were the pacifiers for pain - it was a way of escape for these sensitive people".

Young often commented, "I feel a draught" on sensing a racist atmosphere and his personality became radically more insular after the abuse he suffered in the hands of the army in 1945. Three months after being drafted, he was arrested for possession of marijuana and barbituates. But it was probably the discovery that he had a white common-law wife that antagonised the officials and provoked his trial and subsequent sentence of 10 months in detention. Avakian recalls: "It must have been crushing. Lester never spoke about the experience in the army." On his emergence from the forces, Young discovered that many bop musicians were eulogising him. But this flattery unnerved him because he sensed that he was being robbed of the light, mercurial tone he had forged. He remarked sadly, "They're picking the bones while the body's still warm", and his consumption of gin increased.

Holiday, who famously announced "There's no damn business like showbusiness, you have to laugh to keep from throwing up", was besieged by racism and many vile, manipulative boyfriends, husbands and managers throughout her life. One crisis precipitated another. Of her trial for possession of heroin in 1947, she observed: "It was called `The United States of America versus Billie Holiday'. And that's just the way it felt."

Surprisingly, after performing together for a week-long residency in Philadelphia in 1951, a dispute between these two resulted in neither of them speaking to each for three years but, as Daaoud stresses: "Friends do that, it happens because of the closeness." The fall-out occurred after Young chided Holiday over her heroin addiction and his irritation that she referred to him in interviews in the past tense, stating: "Lester was my favourite tenor player." They were reunited on stage at the very first Newport Jazz Festival in 1954.

The merits of their respective recordings in the 1950s are constantly debated by jazz critics. A sense of vulnerability and introspection infused their music of this period, as if their experiences were emphatically infecting the recordings they were then making, which were frequently melancholic ballads. In 1955, Young was admitted to the Bellevue Hospital following a nervous breakdown, and he returned to hospital in 1957 due to alcoholism and malnutrition. In the late 1950s, they drank quietly together in bars close to Birdland and saw in one another their deterioration staring back at them.

Avakian visited Lester Young at the Alvin Hotel in his final year. The producer remembers: "I think that they both just got exhausted. That's the feeling I had when I saw them in their last years. They were tired - they were not the bright-eyed, energetic people I knew when we were all younger."

Within two months of Young's death, Holiday collapsed into a coma. At the hospital, a white powder was discovered by her bedside and, consequently, she was fingerprinted and photographed on her death-bed by the police. They also confiscated her records and comic books. Finally, Holiday died on 15 July 1959, with less than $1,000 to her name.

But despite the tawdry character of their deaths and the sadness that overcame them, both Billie Holiday and Lester Young left a beautiful body of work, as Daaoud concludes: "It's almost like if you squeeze a heart in that pain, the nectar that drips from it is incredibly angelic - it's sweet. It's always that age-old question: do you have to walk in fire to sing the songs that they did? If they had patron saints and were kept musicians, would the song be as sweet?"

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