Lester Young and Billie Holiday
Having just published Arya Jenkins’ excellent new short story “Foolish Love,” in which Billie Holiday’s music plays a central role in the life of the story’s main character, this piece, excerpted from Bill Crow’s 1990 book, Jazz Anecdotes, is a wonderful reminder of how Ms. Holiday became known as “Lady Day.” The story is set up by Crow and stories about nicknames created by “Prez.”
Lester Young made up names for many of his friends, and everyone used them. He called Count Basie “The Holy Man,” (shortened by the band to “Holy”) because he was the main man, the one from whom the work and the paycheck came. (His later band called him “Chief.”) Lester called Harry Edison “Sweets,” partly because of his lyrical solos and partly because of his devilish nature. He called Earle Warren “Smiley,” and Herschel Evans “Tex.” Of course, Lester always gave these nicknames the prefix “Lady.” He might say, “Now Lady Tex, sing me a song.”
Lester was responsible for the knighting of Sir Charles Thompson. There were three employees at Café Society with the name Charles Thompson, and to straighten things out Lester started using “Sir Charles” to identify the pianist.
“Motherfucker” was used by Lester as an all-purpose modifier. With such constant use, it became an almost gentle term, but Lester occasionally restored its bite. When annoyed by Birdland’s midget master of ceremonies Pee Wee Marquette, Lester diminished him with a contemptuous:
“Get out of my face, you half-a-motherfucker!”
The most famous nickname that Lester bestowed on anyone was “Lady Day” for Billie Holiday. She returned the courtesy by naming him “The President.” Billie tells the story:
Mom and I double up with laughter hearing Lester tell how dangerous it was for a young man living alone in a New York hotel. And when he said, “Duchess, can I move in with you?” there was only one answer. Mom gave him a room and he moved in with us.
Lester was the first to call Mom “Duchess” – and it turned out to be the title she carried to her grave. Lester and I will probably be buried, too, still wearing the names we hung on each other after he came to live with us.
Back at the Log Cabin the other girls used to try and mock me by calling me “Lady,” because they thought I thought I was just too damn grand to take the damn customers’ money off the tables. But the name Lady stuck long after everybody had forgotten where it had come from. Lester took it and coupled it with the Day out of Holiday and called me “Lady Day.”
When it came to a name for Lester, I always felt he was the greatest, so his name had to be the greatest. In this country, kings or counts or dukes don’t amount to nothing. The greatest man around then was Franklin D. Roosevelt and he was the President. So I started calling him The President. It got shortened to Prez, but it still means what it was meant to mean – the top man in this country.
Excerpted from Jazz Anecdotes