Memorial Day, an American “holiday,” celebrates those who have died in war. But some live on, wounded, even when the wounds are not visible. Some who suffer return home without medals. I am thinking of Lester Young, captured by the American military machine. To say that he was treated without understanding or kindness is to understate the facts and their repercussions.
I offer an excerpt from the saxophonist Leroy “Sam” Parkins’ memory of Pres, posted here in 2009:
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.
There are other stories of how a sensitive person was fed into the gears and cogs of a machine that — of necessity — cared nothing for individuality or sensitivity, and the familiar end of this narrative is that “the Army destroyed Pres, and you can hear it in his playing.”
But maybe not.
Here is Lester’s own composition, “D. B. BLUES,” named for “detention barracks,” a blues-with-a-bridge, recorded in December 1945, with his dear friend Vic Dickenson, trombone; Dodo Marmarosa, piano; Red Callendar, string bass; Henry Tucker, drums:
from December 1953, the NEW D. B. BLUES, with Jesse Drakes, trumpet; Gildo Mahones, piano; Gene Ramey, string bass; Connie Kay, drums:
and finally (for this survey — Lester played this “composition” many times more) — a sweetly light-hearted version from December 1956, with Bill Potts, piano; Norman Williams, string bass; Jim Lucht, drums:
I wouldn’t presume to know what went through Lester’s mind when he was playing. I think we can be sure that he named this composition for the place he was imprisoned. But you’ll notice it is music — not a scream of rage or hatred for his oppressors.
This might be the great gift he and others give us: to not only state but embody how pain can be transmuted into beauty and joy. That joy sustains not only us, but in some way it sustained its creator. We should stand in awe of the power of the soul to transcend the harshness of the world.
May your happiness increase!