CAST OUT OF PARADISE: LESTER YOUNG

lester-in-parisSam Parkins, who was there, attentive, muses about Lester Young:

September 1945 I found myself back in the infantry at Fort McClellan, Alabama. The army had lost some of my training records and they needed me to fire the Bazooka and the BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle – 30 cal. and a real bear to shoot), and they were in no hurry. I was going to have to re-graduate from basic training. Most of the rest of this rag-tag company were hardened combat veterans who had been fucked over by the army losing their records. It’s after VJ day.

The sergeants in charge were totally sympathetic; roll-call in the morning, traditionally out on the company street, included a lot of hung-over guys in bed, shouting from the sack, “I’m here sergeant.” Days on end with nothing to do so I found the band, started doing parades, the officers club ($5.00),the non-coms club ($4.00), and the USO. Played baritone with the big band. The drummer was a veteran of the entire European campaign, had been running into a fire fight with his best buddy beside him and watched the guy’s head being completely blown of by a mortar shell. He simply didn’t give a shit, and kept a bottle of Gordon’s gin under the bed for breakfast to keep the boogies away.

The army was totally, and I mean totally, segregated. The colored soldiers had their own gate, and there was a 100 yard lawn – a DMZ – between the two posts. No one allowed to pass in either direction. But their band had Count Basie’s drummer, Jo Jones, other Basieites, Lester Young (Basie’s star saxophonist) had just been drafted, was in basic training and played with the band when he could. Our drummer was the only one of us with the balls to walk across the lawn to rehearsals and dances and to get to know the black musicians.

He came back one night with a really lousy story. Lester Young (street name ‘Pres’) was in the guard house. He had pleaded to be excused from basic and be allowed in the band; the band leader petitioned the authorities, to no avail (and I wonder if a white musician would have made out better. I knew some who did, and after all, the war was over…).

In Geoff Dyer’s book, “But Beautiful” (great book if you can stand unvarnished tragedies), the author, using the Freedom of Information Act, got the transcript of the trial; there’s a lot of detail, all brutal, that I wasn’t privy to, but this here narrative is missing from all biographical accounts. No way any latter day historian could know it.

It’s night firing on the fifty caliber machine-gun range. Outside of the noise, it’s a pretty sight. Maybe twenty machine-guns lined up about eight feet apart, shooting down a slight incline at cardboard cutouts of enemy soldiers; every tenth bullet (tracer bullets) lights up as it’s fired so you see slightly arched lines of electric magic flowing from each gun barrel.

The sergeant, off to the side and slightly down-range, notices one line of magic markers disappear. He goes to investigate, and finds Lester Young lying on his back smoking a joint. Sergeant is aghast. “On your feet soldier!” Pres’ reply is to hand the sergeant the joint and – “Hey sarge — aren’t the stars pretty up in the sky?”

In his left hand pocket of his fatigue jacket were five more joints; sergeant calls the MPs and the founder of a style that was to sweep the country (think Stan Getz and “The Girl From Ipanema”) is led off to jail.

There was no rush to bring him to trial. He started acting up in his cell, noisy, woke guys at night, he wanted his horn. So the guard got it for him. End of the world. He played 24 hours a day, made everyone crazy, so they took it away from him. And he really lost it. I have no details, but the guards were white – and so forth.

Disobeying a direct order, possession of narcotics, 400 days in an army detention center.

Finally, mid-November, I fired the bazooka at a rusted-out shell-shocked hulk of a tank and was declared through with basic – again – and was awarded a 15 day furlough. And re-enlisted for an extra year (paid a lot more GI bill) and they tacked on another 30 days, so I was home from Thanksgiving to New Year and then some.

[Here I had a memory lapse, because I have remembered this over the years as 1946, after Pres had served his sentence. Wrong. Jazz impresario Norman Granz got in touch with the authorities, applied some kind of heat, and got him sprung in a few weeks].

Of course I went to the Savoy and there on the bandstand was Lester Young, leading a quintet with trumpeter Jesse Drakes and rhythm section. He was struggling – and in the middle of a tune pulled the horn from his chops and began to cry.

He never again played with the fluency of the Basie days. There are, captured on record, moments of magic, but something was broken. And the last time I saw him, at Storyville a month before his death, you knew you were hearing and seeing a dead man. He was drinking and starving himself to death… You don’t want to hear it from me. Read “But Beautiful” (Geoff Dyer; North Point Press, 1996. Paperback).

ca 2.19.03 notes

Regarding the Army vs. Lester Young: Goeff Dyer makes it clear that the army had a pretty good idea from Lester Young’s pre-induction physical what they were getting – a wired, messed up addict with syphilis – and they took him anyhow. Here we can damn the army, but show a mitigating factor.

Damning: After the war, the army essentially apologized for doing such a lousy job of screening draftees, and vowed to do better next time. My wife, Camilla Kemple, spent her academic life teaching the battery of psychological tests used for this purpose, and she tells me that they were mostly in place by the early forties when she started teaching (at the New School in New York). The army made little or no use of them.

An example right under my nose covers two wondrously disconnected elements. In the bus with me (during the Battle of the Bulge) on the way to the army induction center (Ft. Devens, Ayer, Mass.) was a cute little cat named Little Pres. Always showed up at sessions (along with a baritone player who called himself Lester Parker in order to cover all bases). Little Pres didn’t play all that well, but he was a pioneer. Lester Young hadn’t hit yet; us tenor players were still consumed with Hawkins/Webster fever. So Little Pres tried to show us the new way. He was round, maybe 5 ft. 2, had fashioned a pork-pie hat in the manner of his master, and preached the superiority of Pres Senior.

I have to interrupt here to describe what we apprentice tenor players were up against when we encountered the real thing. Little Pres and I, with our horns, were wandering the streets of Boston one Sunday afternoon and said, “Hey – Arnett Cobb is at the Savoy. Let’s go see if we can blow with him”. Arnett Cobb, veteran of Lionel Hampton’s band, one of those huge sounding Texas guys, master interpreter of the Illinois Jacquette “Flying Home” solo (which I had to play four times a night a few years later at the Golfer’s Club in Ithaca – that black after-hours dance hall/gambling club).

Get to the joint – “Sure boys, come right on up.”  And in the most kindly way possible, Arnett Cobb blew us right across the Charles River. There’s no point trying to put on paper how loud those guys were. Amplification for anyone but singers was unknown; the sheer power of the big bands came from acoustically loud (remember the girdles worn by the Condoli brothers, trumpets in Stan Kenton’s band. Prevented hernias).

I was in the army with a tenor player from Sam Donahue’s band. He described what the power-players did (Eddie Miller, Tex Beneke, Bud Freeman were of another, quieter, order). They bought the most open metal mouthpiece, filed it more open yet, got #5 hard reeds and clipped them. I tried a set-up like that and couldn’t make a sound. Not strong enough.

Back to Little Pres. He had seemed a little flaky, but what else is new? Drafted at the same time, we rode the bus together, had our uniforms fitted together, and parted. Assigned to different outfits, where a senior sergeant taught us to make a bed, army style. I didn’t see Little Pres again, but a week later heard about him. He was discharged. The flakes must have showed in some non-military way and he was sent home with a Section Eight. The most coveted premature discharge in the army. Medical discharge. Dishonorable discharge or discharge-without-honor can screw you up in later life. Means the induction center did no screening of this guy at all. I could have told them he was unfit.

Mitigation: Lester Young was inducted in August of 1944 when he was 35 years old. The Battle of the Bulge was raging, we weren’t at all sure we weren’t losing the war, and there loomed the horrendous prospect of invading Japan, code name ‘Operation Downfall’ (a novelist, using all available planning records from our army and Japan’s, wrote a fictional history of what would have happened had we invaded Japan. You don’t want to know). The atom bomb decision came very late in the game.

Green troops were pulled out of basic before they learned anything; were flown across the Atlantic to try to plug the leaks in our too thin lines across the neck of the Bulge. The draft was scraping the bottom of the barrel; the draft age was raised to forty. In my first go at basic training, while the Bulge was still on, we had a guy come in late – one of those poor slobs whose training records had been lost. He had been sent back from combat in the Bulge because: I noted his Coke-bottle glasses and asked him how come he was sent home. Here’s what he said:

“I was running into battle when this lieutenant came up to me and said, ‘Soldier – why are you wearing your gas mask?’  I said, ‘Sir, I’ve broken my glasses and I can’t see without the gas mask.'” If you had really rotten vision, your GI gas mask had prescription lenses. This guy had 20/400 vision; drafted anyhow.

So the drafting of Lester Young in this context makes it make a little more sense. But Geoff Dyer observes that Young consistently infuriated the army from physical on by being so weak and so passive. In an account of a white lieutenant making him tear up a picture of Billie Holiday (perceived as white) in the presence of the rest of the company, Dyer portrays the officer’s feelings:

“…He’d never encountered a man more lacking in strength, but he made the whole idea of strength and all the things associated with it seem irrelevant, silly. Rebels, ringleaders, and mutineers – they could all be countered: they met the army head-on, played by its rules. However strong you were, the army could break you – but weakness, that was something the army was powerless to oppose because it did away with the whole idea of opposition on which force depends. All you could do with the weak was cause them pain – and Young was going to get plenty of that.”

But it ain’t that simple. Here’s Dyer from an earlier time in Lester Young’s life: “When they jammed together Hawk tried everything he knew to cut him but he never managed it. In Kansas City in ’34 they played right through the morning; Hawk stripped down to his singlet, trying to blow him down with that big hurricane tenor, and Lester slumped in a chair with that faraway look in his eyes, his tone still light as a breeze after eight hours of playing. The pair of them wore out pianists until there was no one left and Hawk walked off the stand, threw his horn in the back of his car, and gunned it all the way to St. Louis for that night’s gig”.

That’s hardly a description of a weakling. But it’s ten years earlier, Pres is 25, and in that he freely admitted to having been an addict for ten years when he was drafted at 35, was at the time of this session drug free (‘though it’s hard to imagine that they didn’t blow a little gage – the term for smoking pot in the thirties). Here it should be noted that several Lester Young scholars find signs of his eventual disintegration in recordings made in the period just before he went in the army.

So what happened in 1944-45? Maybe the drugs. He had to be smoking pot, and admitted to amphetamines. Benzedrine, legal at the time, is truly vicious, starting with the cardio-vascular system and finishing with the brain. A combination of drugs may have begun to wreck his nervous system. And don’t forget the syphilis. It can go underground and leap out at you years – decades – later, and it eventually destroys the brain

But more likely – this from personal experience. In that session where he wasted Coleman Hawkins, he was on native turf, doing what he was born to do. In the army? Here’s an abbreviated version of my tale. Some of us have some schizophrenia and a touch of epilepsy in their ancestry; in my family, a lot (and look around you. More than you thought?). In 1950 my soon-to-be wife’s father came bombing up to Ithaca to prevent an unholy marriage. Ours. Late afternoon harangue. No dinner. Later and later harangue. I couldn’t walk away from it because it wold have put my wife-to-be at risk. Somewhere in the early AM I partially fainted. Still conscious, but removed from the scene. (We got married anyhow).

I’ll bet that under the brutal pressure Lester Young was subjected to, he simply shut down. It’s a mild seizure – protective circuitry kicks in. There was no way out of this. No Joe Glaser* to call. So the organism crawled into its shell. [* Joe Glaser – Louis Armstrong’s connected manager, never let anything remotely bad come near Louis]. And most likely, a combination of the above.

Here’s the day after I wrote all that, and I find it dissatisfying, in part because it exposes an arrogant attitude on my part which implies that Lester Young might have acted “better,” or “stronger,” for which I abjectly apologize. Don’t delete the above, because it includes contributing factors, and will stand as “out-takes” but let’s take another crack at it:

First of all, this is 1945, civil rights legislation is years away, we’re in the South, Lester Young, however light, is black, and the officers are white. The situation mirrors slavery because the officers have absolute power.

Now go ahead to about 1972. The magazine ‘Psychology Today’ reported a failed experiment at Stanford in the psychology department. The mission was to examine the dynamics of being a warden/prison guard as against being a prisoner. So the entire graduate department was enlisted; half the students were assigned prisoner status, the other half became guards. They were to be observed for two weeks at which point their roles would be reversed; guards would become prisoners and vice versa.

It lasted barely a week. The faculty had to abort the experiment abruptly because the prisoners were having crying jags and some were approaching a nervous breakdown. The guards were showing increasing meanness bordering on brutality – physical violence was looming. Remember that this was a reasonably random cross-section of the population. Now go back to Lester Young in the army and take another look at it with this experiment in mind.

For another vision of Lester’s story, read Frank Buchmann-Moller’s extraordinary biography, YOU JUST FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE — which draws on the Army’s files to give the facts behind this most traumatic story.  And, yes, it is just as painful as the mythic versions we all knew before the files came to light.

Advertisements

3 responses to “CAST OUT OF PARADISE: LESTER YOUNG

  1. A rare insight into Lester. Must reading for any
    jazz fan.

  2. Bill Gallagher

    Thanks, Sam.

  3. Wow. An important contribution to Lestoriana. An excellent, recent book about Prez (sorry I don’t recall exact title) mentions that he did experience – at least once – an
    epileptic seizure. I wonder if anyone has investigated this in depth? I believe it has also been suggested that Lester might have gotten some relief from seizures (presumably petite mal) via his marijuana use.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s