Tag Archives: Frank Buchmann-Moller

“HAVE YOU TRIED THE ELEPHANT BEER?”: INSPIRED STORIES: “JAZZ TALES FROM JAZZ LEGENDS,” by MONK ROWE with ROMY BRITELL

Marian McPartland and Monk Rowe, photo by Val DeVisser

Marian McPartland and Monk Rowe, photo by Val DeVisser

Monk Rowe is a jazz musician — saxophonist, pianist, composer, arranger — and he has a day gig at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, as the  Joe Williams Director of the Filius Jazz Archive there.  The Archive will be twenty-one in 2016, and it is indeed remarkably adult.

So far, Monk has conducted video interviews with more than 325 musicians, ranging from the great forbears (Doc Cheatham, Eddie Bert, Kenny Davern, Jerry Jerome, Ray Conniff, Joe Williams, Milt Hinton) to the living legends of the present and future (Nicki Parrott, Kidd Jordan, Sherrie Maricle, Bill Charlap, Holly Hofmann, Maria Schneider).  And excerpts from those interviews, thematically and intelligently arranged, now form a compact yet impressive book (with a brief foreword by jazz eminence Dan Morgenstern) whose title is above.

JazzTalesCover

A friend at Hamilton sent me a copy of the book some weeks back, and I have been slow to write about it — for two reasons.  One, the semester got in the way, unforgivably, and two, I was often making notes and laughing so hard that I couldn’t read much at a sitting.  But my instant recommendation is BUY IT.  So those of you who want to skip the evidence can zoom to the bottom of this post. Others can linger.

A brief prelude.  I am immensely in favor of oral history although it cannot replace the best analysis or aesthetic criticism.  I wouldn’t give up Whitney Balliett, Martin Williams, Gary Giddins, Anthony Barnett, Frank Buchmann-Moller, Manfred Selchow, or John Chilton . . . the list goes on and I know I am leaving two dozen worthy writers out.  But what wouldn’t we give for a ten-minute interview with Tony Fruscella, Frank Teschemacher, Jimmy Harrison, Herschel Evans, Eddie Lang, Jimmy Blanton, or Buster Bailey?  True, some musicians were and are shy or not always able to articulate much about the music, but others — as we know — are born raconteurs, sharp observers, comedians, anthropologists.  Their stories, no matter how brief, are precious.  Two pages by Clark Terry where he speaks of being beaten by Caucasians because he was a “Nigerian” while in Mississippi — and then being rescued by another group of Caucasians — say more about race relations in the United States than twenty hours of PBS footage could ever do.

The material is organized thematically, enabling the reader to hear, for instance, stories of life on the road from Kenny Davern, Lanny Morgan, and Phil Woods. Then there are sharp observations — one can almost hear the rimshot that follows.  Dave Pell calls Stan Getz “the greatest dressing room player that ever lived.”  Stan Kenton stops his band from swinging too much and says, “This is not Basie.  This is Stan Kenton.”  Bobby Rosengarden talks about Toscanini, Joe Wilder about punctuality, Dick Hyman and Bucky Pizzarelli about life in the recording studio.  Keter Betts, as a high-school student, is bought lunch by Milt Hinton; Jean Bach explains the Ellington habit of “seagulling”; Sherrie Maricle recalls her metal clarinet.  Dan Barrett gives advice to young musicians.  Randy Sandke talks about the perils of thinking.  Karl Berger talks about his conducting; Kidd Jordan deconstructs a song’s title.  And there’s a historical perspective covering nearly a century: we hear Doc Cheatham talk about Ma Rainey, then Jerry Jerome describe the first Glenn Miller band — all the way up to the present.

It’s an enthralling book.  And since Monk Rowe is a professional musician, his interludes and commentary are more than useful; his questions are on the mark. Other writers put themselves into the dialogue merely to say, “Well, Dizzy always used to say to me,” but Monk is a gracious interpreter rather than a narcissist.

To find out the story of the elephant beer and the priceless answer, visit Monk’s JAZZ BACKSTORY blog here  and scroll down to the bottom of the page.  Then you can read the rest of Phil Woods’ words and — by the way — find out exactly what Dizzy Gillespie said when presented with the key to the city of Syracuse, New York.

JAZZ TALES FROM JAZZ LEGENDS is available here through Amazon.  And the proceeds from the book support the Archives.

NEWS FLASH: Monk is going to be teaching a free online course on jazz, starting February 2, 2016: details here.

May your happiness increase!

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A BEAUTIFULLY REALIZED BOOK: “BEING PREZ” by DAVE GELLY

In the decades after his death in 1959, Lester Young has been the subject of many published pages, both research and memoir, by Frank Buchmann-Moller, Lewis Porter, Douglas Henry Daniels, Whitney Balliett — as well as anecdotes that continue to crop up even now (even on Facebook).

One would think that there was no need for more writing on the subject, especially since Lester’s life seems to fall in to clearly discernable and well-documented acts in his own play: his childhood experiences in the Young family band; early exposure to Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer; professional gigs with King Oliver, Fletcher Henderson, and then his glorious time in the Count Basie orchestra; small group work with Billie Holiday; his attempts to lead his own small groups; his unhappy time in the United States military; increasing fame balanced against ill-health and a feeling of being overwhelmed by people copying him; his brief final decline and early death.

Would another book on Lester would be superfluous, or it would provide the same stories with new prose connecting them?

BEING PREZ

I write this to draw my readers to one of the best books on a jazz artist I have ever read — Dave Gelly’s BEING PREZ -(Oxford University Press) – which, although published in 2007, I have only read in the last few months.  (I came to it because I was so very impressed with Gelly’s AN UNHOLY ROW — a book I commend to anyone interested in the delicate, shifting relationships between music and its audiences.)

There are some writers I read with difficulty because their prose is efficient but graceless ways; others are so ornate that meaning gets submerged. I can tolerate either or both if the chosen subject is appealing.

But Gelly is that rare creation: a subtle writer, not in love with the sound of his own rhetorical flourishes, whose work is a pleasure to read for its own sake.  Add that he is writing about one of my heroes: this book couldn’t be better.  In fact, when I first received a copy of this slim volume — slightly over 170 pages — I put myself on a reader’s diet, putting the book out of sight after each chapter so that I wouldn’t finish it too quickly, wouldn’t get to Lester’s sad end too fast.

Gelly handles the facts with grace, but his is not simply a compact retelling of what Buchmann-Moller and Daniels have done more expansively. His book is thoroughly adult in his emotional relation to his subject.  He clearly loves Lester, but can at points step back and gently say that a career choice was not something that served Prez well.  So his admiration and adoration are fair and moderated by kindness.  When some writers depict a subject who has, let us say, cut his life short by alcohol or drugs, there is a constant soundtrack of quiet parental disapproval.  The word SHOULD hangs over the book.  “Oh, if _____ had only done this, he would be with us today,” as if the writer is trying to hide his annoyance that the subject didn’t live longer, record more, give us more pleasure.

Gelly never treats Lester like a bad child; his recital of the facts of Lester’s life is empathic.  It is that sensitivity to what this most sensitive man must have felt that makes BEING PREZ especially poignant and wise.  Gelly does not psychoanalyze, but he has great psychological acuity, offered lightly.  He does, for instance, see Lester’s character being formed in childhood by his being taken away from his beloved mother, Lizetta (who outlived him) and his often tense relationships with his severe father, Billy Young.  BEING PREZ quietly offers these factors to make Lester’s behavior, once viewed as inexplicable, completely logical: a man who cannot tolerate conflict and confrontation instead chooses avoidance — he runs away and disappears. (Gelly is just as wise when it comes to influential figures in Lester’s life, such as Count Basie.)

Gelly is old-fashioned in his love of his subject (he does not seek to make Lester small, ever) but he is also that most ancient creation, a moralist.  I mean that as a great compliment: someone who knows that there are right and wrong actions, each with its own set of consequences.  Consider this, on Lester’s abduction as a child:

Much has been written about the estimable personal qualities of Willis Handy Young — his unwavering devotion to study and self-advancement, his grim determination to succeed against the odds, his considerable musical gifts, his talent for administration and his dignified conduct under the barely tolerable yoke of Southern racism. But among all these splendid qualities at least one attribute was plainly missing — a tender heart. To take a child away from its mother by means of a trick is a wicked thing to do.  When that child is a shy, sensitive little boy with a deep mutual attachment to his mother, it is unforgivable. According to Irma, Lester wept bitterly for a long time afterwards. No doubt Lizetta wept, too.

That passage — on page four — so struck me that I sought out the Beloved to read it to her.  “Wicked” is not a word we use often in this century, but a biographer with righteous indignation, a moral sense, and a tender heart is a rare artist indeed.

BEING PREZ also has one great and endearing advantage over any other book on Lester: Gelly is a professional jazz musician whose instrument is the tenor saxophone.  And he is humanely articulate about that instrument and what it requires.  We aren’t barraged by a Schuller-styled musicological analysis of what Lester is doing (did you hear his implied Db diminished thirteenth over the grace note in the last beat of bar 127?) which makes those who aren’t grounded in music theory turn pale and opt for a newspaper instead, but Gelly conveys certain information about the mechanics of what Lester does better than anyone else I’ve ever read, without intimidating or overwhelming the reader.  His musical analyses are brief but convincing, and his explanations of how Lester got certain sounds make what was once completely mysterious clear.

Finally, Gelly does a superb job of balancing his narrative between the two selves: Lester the quiet, tender man who often wants simply to play among congenial souls and then to be left alone in solitude, and Lester the musician who amazes and continues to amaze.  Gelly’s aims in this book are noble yet simple — free from a particular ideological slant.  He says in his introduction that he took on this book because Lester was always fragmented in this way, and that he wanted to do what he could to bring this elusive, enigmatic man to light.  He’s succeeded.

Gelly is not combative, but he is somewhat impatient with the teetering myths of Lester’s life — for one, that Lester was so broken by his army experience that he couldn’t create (many recordings give the lie to that) and that he was so downtrodden by his imitators that he despaired.

Other biographies of Lester have their own delights: first-hand testimony from musicians who played alongside Lester, or extensive data on Lester’s childhood. But BEING PREZ is as beautifully and completely realized as any long solo Lester ever created, and I wait with eagerness for whatever Gelly will write in future.

Lester once told pianist Horace Silver (he spoke of himself in the third person), “I just don’t feel like nobody likes old Prez.”  BEING PREZ, had he known of it, would have made him feel better.  “Bells!” indeed.

And here’s Prez (in a 1944 masterpiece justly celebrated in this book).  He’s never left town:

May your happiness increase! 

HIS GRIEF, HIS ART: BEN WEBSTER, 1970

I’ve been listening to a new double-CD set of Ben Webster recordings assembled in honor of his hundredth birthday, titled THE BRUTE AND THE BEAUTIFUL (Storyville 103 8407).  Most of the music in this set comes from Webster’s last years in Europe.  Depending on the musicians accompanying Ben and his own health, the results are either lovely or uneven.  Occasionally a boppish rhythm section intrudes, or sweet symphonic orchestrations threaten to drown everything.  But two recordings in this set done with Teddy Wilson are irreplaceable — one, a version of STARDUST done in Copenhagen in 1969, is yearning and intense.  (The video of this performance, once available on YouTube, apparently has been removed, which is a pity.)

But the more dramatic OLD FOLKS (Hugo Rasmussen, bass; Ole Streenberg, drums) from May 1970, is still accessible.  It is also very deep music.

Webster is casually, almost sloppily dressed, his great bulk protruding in front of him.  Because he had broken an ankle in a fall eight months before, he is seated.  The performance begins with a small display of will, as Ben refuses to play the song at the medium-tempo jog Wilson chose.  Instead, Ben snaps his fingers insistently, slowing the tempo to a ballad, a lament.

Teddy Wilson also has the sheet music in front of him and gazes at it intently, his lips moving silently.  During the last twenty-five years of his career, Wilson stuck to his own familiar repertoire, medleys of songs associated with Waller, Goodman, Gershwin, Basie, and so on, so this is unusual.  The unfmiliarity of OLD FOLKS accounts for the atypical mistake he makes at the end of his second chorus.  Viewers will notice the difficulty or pain evident in his right hand as he pauses between phrases to turn his wrist inwards, perhaps the inevitable result of so much muscular exertion at the piano night after night.  Watching these two men play, one is aware of their age, their occasional struggles; hearing them is a different matter.

This performance is Webster’s, although Wilson’s accompaniment is gentle, supportive, and simple.  Ben’s first chorus is apparently close to the melody, with some tender arpeggios and pauses, but playing melody in this fashion is anything but simple, something only learned through forty years of devotion and practice.  The song comes alive.  Ben’s sound, his tone, his phrase-ending vibratos, full of air, are the very opposite of uninflected playing.  In the middle of the bridge, Ben removes the mouthpiece from his lips, shakes his head in exasperation (with himself or with his instrument?) but does not stop or give in.

To me, the polite applause that greets the end of his chorus is inadequate response, suggesting that the audience does not entirely grasp what they have just heard, but that might do them an injustice.  Teddy’s  chorus is a mixture of embellishments and his patented arpeggios.  Midway through it, though, the camera pulls back and we see Ben nodding silently, “Yes, I know,” empathic, hearing Wilson’s playing.  They had known and worked with each other as early as 1935, so there may havebeen the kinship of people who have shared the same experiences over time.  Ben told the British interviewer Henry Whiston in 1971 that he had leased a “beautiful piano” for his home, “I got that piano so that Teddy Wilson could have a piano to play on.”

(While Wilson is concluding his seond chorus, the camera pans to a handsome African-American of this same generation, dressed in a pink shirt, the trumpeter Bill Coleman, another long-term expatriate.)

Then we see that Webster has been crying: a tear is spilling out of his eye.  And he nods again, sadly agreeing with what Wilson has been saying without words, before picking up his horn a few beats later.

When I first saw this performance perhaps twenty years ago, I was unaware of any context, and thought perhaps that Ben had been moved to tears by the beauty of Wilson’s solo, which I still believe.  Was he also thinking of his peers — the American jazz musicians who knew and lived the music he loved — the men and women he had left behind to come to Europe?  The friends he had lost, the musicians he might never play with again?  Johan van der Keuken, who knew Ben well in Scandinavia, has spoken of the “essential loneliness” that “became more heavy” for him as he remained there.

But I read in Frank Buchmann-Moller’s excellent biography of Webster, SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME, that Ben had learned of the death of Johnny Hodges only a short time before this broadcast.  Although Ben might very well be weeping over Wilson’s solo, its beauty and its larger implications, his grief takes on a new dimension.

The fine tenor saxophonist Jesper Thilo said of Ben, “He was 100 percent honest.  Everything came from the heart; there was no acting involved.  He wasn’t very good at sweeping things under the carpet.”

Ben had sat in the reed section of the Ellington band for almost four years, hearing Johnny Hodges every night and marveling.  He had come to the band a fully developed soloist, but he learned so much about the subtleties of technique and emotion, about singing from Hodges.  A year before this performance, Coleman Hawkins had died — an event that had upset Ben greatly.  Hodges’s sudden death — a heart attack in the dentist’s chair — was even more devastating.  Ben told Whiston, “It was . . . like if you hit me in the head with a sledgehammer.  It knocked me down.  I really didn’t know what to do.”

I do not think that Ben chose OLD FOLKS as a tribute to Hodges: that song, that piece of Americana, had been part of his repertoire since 1969, and an Ellington ballad such as I GOT IT BAD or SOPHISTICATED LADY would have been more predictable.  But OLD FOLKS was Ben’s idea rather than Wilson’s, the evidence suggested by Wilson’s unfamiliarity.

However it came to be part of this performance, OLD FOLKS is an integral part of the emotions we and the musicians come to feel.  Written by Willard Robison and performed by Mildred Bailey, among others, it is an affectionate, sly, sentimental portrait of a grandfatherly character whose habits are rustic, who tells “tall tales” that everyone knows are doubtful . . . yet he is beloved.  The lyrics emphasize his age; someday “Old Folks” will be dead and everyone will grieve.

Was Ben Webster weeping not only for the deaths of Hawkins and Hodges, Sid Catlett and Jimmy Blanton, but for an entire generation of his friends, artistic colleagues?  For the inevitability of their deaths, all the Old Folks of jazz?  Was he even wondering how long he would live?  Perhaps.

But his tears do not disable him.  He does not, in Yeats’s words, “break up his lines to weep.”  It all had to be saved for the music — a professional musician, a grown man, he had his job to do, whether or not tears were spilling out of his eyes.  And so he continues playing OLD FOLKS, hesitantly, but with such feeling.  It almost makes me weep, watching it: Ben’s slow pace, his patient, sorrowful exploration of its lines.

But it took me twenty years to realize that ben’s closing solo is a musical evocation of the weeping he would not surrender to.  His eyes dry up; he gains control of himself.  But he weeps through his horn.  What are his brief, irregular phrases, separated by gulps of air, but sobs and gasps?  His loss, his tenacity, his art — inseparable.  Watch closely: here is Ben Webster, a man, majestic and infirm at once, someone who would die in two years, racked by emotions, playing as beautifully as any musician ever did.  Without ever being didactic, this performance has so much to say to us, to teach us.

Two postscripts.

One: this clip has detestable advertisements crawling along the bottom of the frame.  But a reasonably nimble viewer can find the X and make the ads vanish.  I know that jazz needs financial support, but the ads seem a repellent intrusion here.

Two, much happier: the quotations here come from Buchmann-Moller’s biography of Ben, published in 2006 by the University of Michigan Press.  Buchmann-Moller is also the author of two indispensable books on Lester Young’s life and music, their titles taken from Lester’s own defining expressions: YOU JUST FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE, and YOU GOT TO BE ORIGINAL, MAN!  His work is accurate, compassionate, and fair — worthy of the great John Chilton.

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.