Although some of us understandably recoil from chronicles of suffering, pain and oppression make for more compelling narrative than happiness does. Think of Emma (Bovary) and Anna (Karenina), their anguish and torment so much more gripping than the story of the main character in Willa Cather’s “Neighbour Rosicky.” Montherlant, the French writer Larkin loved to quote, said that happiness “writes white,” that it has nothing to tell us. Give us some despair, and we turn the pages. It is true in jazz historiography as it is in fiction. Consider the ferociously detailed examination of the painful lives of Bix Beiderbecke and Charlie Parker. Musicians like Hank Jones, Buck Clayton, Buster Bailey or Bennie Morton, artists who showed up early and sober to the session, are not examined in the same way.
Suffering, self-destruction, misery — those subjects engross us.
And Lester Willis Young (August 27, 1909 – March 15, 1959) whose birthday approaches, will be celebrated on WKCR-FM this weekend, is a splendid example of how the difficulties of one’s life become the subject of sad scrupulous examination.
The “Lester Young story” that is so often told is that of his victimization and grief. And there is sufficient evidence to show him as a man oppressed — from childhood to his final plane ride — by people who didn’t understand him or didn’t want to. Readers who know the tale can point accusing fingers at a stock company of betrayers and villains: Willis Young, Leora Henderson, John Hammond, the United States Army, a horde of Caucasians (some faceless, some identifiable) and more.
Although he is simply changing a reed, the photograph below is most expressive of that Lester. Intent, but not at ease. Skeptical of the world, wondering what will happen next, his expression verging on anxious.
But there is the music, lest we forget. It speaks louder than words, Charlie Parker told Earl Wilson.
A different Lester — ebullient, inventive, full of joyous surprises — is the subject of one of the most grand musical productions I have ever seen, an eight CD set on Mosaic Records, its cover depicted below. Every note on this set is a direct rejection of the story of Lester the victim and every note tells us that Lester the creator was even more important, his impact deeper and more permanent.
Where did this mournful myth come from, and why?
Few African-American musicians received perceptive and sympathetic media coverage in the Thirties, perhaps because jazz was viewed as entertainment and writers often adopted the most painful “hip” jargon. (I leave aside Ansermet on Sidney Bechet and early analysis of Ellington as notable exceptions.) So the writings on Lester, some of which were his own speech, come late in his life and are cautious, full of bitterness and melancholy. He was by nature sensitive and shy, and which of us would feel comfortable speaking to a stranger in front of a microphone? Yes, the Lester of the irreplaceable Chris Albertson and Francois Postif interviews is quite a bit more unbuttoned, but much of what comes through is despair, exhaustion, suspicion, hurt. (I make an exception for Bobby Scott’s gentle loving portrait, but that was posthumous, perhaps Scott’s effort to say, “This was the Lester I knew.”)
Even the film footage we have of Lester (leaving aside those jubilant, silent seconds from Randalls Island) supports this image of the suffering Pres, a bottle sticking out of the pocket of his long black coat, elusive, turning away from the world because of what it had done to him. The mystical icon of JAMMIN’ THE BLUES is to me a mournful figure, even though Lester participates in the riotous closing blues. The Lester of THE SOUND OF JAZZ evokes tears in his music and in his stance. And on the 1958 Art Ford show, the song Lester calls for his feature is MEAN TO ME, a fact not cancelled out by JUMPIN’ WITH SYMPHONY SID. The 1950 Norman Granz film, IMPROVISATION, is a notable exception: in BLUES FOR GREASY Lester quietly smiles while Harry Edison struts. But the visual evidence we have is in more sad than happy.
Adding all this together, the mythic figure we have come to accept is that of Pres on the cross of racism, a man watching others less innovative getting more “pennies” and more prominent gigs. Then, there’s the conception of him “in decline,” running parallel to Billie Holiday, “still my Lady Day.” Although some have effectively argued for a more balanced view — why should a musician want to play in 1956 the way he played twenty years earlier, assuming even that it was possible? Some critics still muse on the change in his sound around 1942, constructing the facile story of a man bowed down by adversity. And we are drawn to the gravity-bound arc of a great artist, blooming beyond belief in his twenties, alcoholic and self-destructive, dying before reaching fifty.
But the brand-new eight-disc Mosaic set, taken for its own virtues, is a wonderful rebuke to such myth-making. If you have heard nothing of it or from it, please visit here.
I am writing this review having heard less than one-fourth of this set, and that is intentional. We do not stuff down fine cuisine in the same way one might mindlessly work their way through a bag of chips; we do not put the Beethoven string quartets on while washing the kitchen floor, and we do not play these Lester Young tracks as background music, or in the car. To do so would be at best disrespectful.
I think that by now everyone has heard about the virtues of Mosaic’s delicate and thoughtful work. Fine notes by Pres-scholar Loren Schoenberg, rare and new photographs, and transfers of familiar material that make it shine in ways I could not have imagined. The music bursts through the speakers and I heard details I’d never heard, not even through forty years of close listening.
The news, of course, is that there are four astonishing discoveries on this set: alternate takes of LADY BE GOOD, EVENIN’, and BOOGIE WOOGIE from the 1936 Jones-Smith, Inc., session, and a previously unknown alternate take of HONEYSUCKLE ROSE by the 1937 Basie band.
Now, what follows may mark me as a suburban plutocrat, but if you’d come to me at any time in the past dozen years and said, “Pssst! Michael! Want beautiful transfers of three alternate takes from Jones-Smith, Inc., and I’ll throw in an unissued Basie Decca — for a hundred and fifty dollars?” I would have gone to the ATM as fast as I could.
When I first heard the issued take of SHOE SHINE BOY in 1969 — I taped it from an Ed Beach radio show and treasured it — the music went right to my heart in a way that only Louis did. It still does, a living embodiment of joy.
And the joy is still profound. I know this not only because of the feelings that course through me while listening to the Mosaic set, but because of an entirely unplanned experiment earlier this week. I had lunch with a young musician whom I admire and like, and after the food was eaten we went back to my place — as is our habit — so that I could “play him some Dixieland!” as he likes to say.
But this time I asked, “Do you like Lester Young?” Had he said “No,” I would have invented an appointment with my podiatrist that I had to get to right away, but he answered properly and with enthusiasm. He had never heard SHOE SHINE BOY, so I put the first Mosaic disc on. He is someone whose emotions bubble through him, and although he is taller and broader than I am, he capered around my living room, completely ecstatic. Lester’s magic is potent and undiminished: I could see the music hitting him as hard and sweetly as it had done to me in 1969.
And as I have been listening to this set while writing these words, I am continually astonished — by recordings I heard forty years ago, by recordings I first heard a week ago — not only by how alive they sound, but by the complete picture of Lester’s first decade of recordings, so influential. Jones-Smith, Inc. Una Mae Carlisle. Dickie Wells. The Kansas City Six and Seven, and Lester’s 1943 Keynote quartet. The Aladdins. TI-PI-TIN. I FOUND A NEW BABY with Teddy Wilson, twice. The Philo trio with Nat Cole. A few Helen Humes sides. The only studio recordings beyond Mosaic’s reach are the Savoy sessions.
The joy is not only Lester. There’s Count Basie, Walter Page, Teddy Wilson, Freddie Green, Jo Jones, Johnny Guarnieri, Doc West, Sidney Catlett, Vic Dickenson, Slam Stewart, Shad Collins, Sweets Edison, Buck Clayton, Eddie Durham, Nat Cole, Red Callendar, Buddy Rich, Buster Bailey, Bill Coleman, Dickie Wells, Joe Bushkin, Benny Goodman, Herschel Evans, Bennie Morton, Earle Warren, Jack Washington, Helen Humes . . . and more.
I’ve read a good deal of discussion of this set, of price, of value — as always! — on Facebook, and I won’t reiterate it here. I will only say that this box is superb listening, provocative and rewarding music. And as a wise person used to say, “Amortize!” — that is, instead of buying ten lesser CDs, buy this. And think of the expense as ten manageable chunklets: that’s what credit cards allow us to do. You will be listening to this music for the rest of your life.
Some, reared on Spotify and Pandora — and the idea that everything should be free — will burn copies of the set from jazz Enablers, will wait for the material to be “borrowed” by European labels. I think this is at best polite theft, and the sole way that we have of keeping enterprises like Mosaic afloat — and there’s nothing like Mosaic, if you haven’t noticed — is to support it.
For those who have their calculators out, the set is eight CDs. There are 173 tracks. The cost is $136.00 plus shipping. There are only 5000 sets being produced. They won’t be around in five years, or perhaps in one. (I paid for my set, if you wonder about such things.)
Thank you, Pres, for being so joyous and for sharing your joy with us. We mourn your griefs, but we celebrate your delight in sounds. And thank you, Mosaic, for bringing us the joy in such profusion.
May your happiness increase!