Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and Gerry Mulligan
New York, December 8, 1957
In Martin Torgoff’s brilliant new book Bop Apocalypse — an extensive exploration of the connections of jazz, literature and drugs, and how drugs impacted the lives and work of people like Charlie Parker, Jack Kerouac, Lester Young, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg — Torgoff devotes a chapter to Billie Holiday’s struggle with drug abuse, and the public airing of it when her 1956 autobiography Lady Sings the Blues was published.
While her book contained errors that have since caused critics and biographers to cast doubt on the book’s veracity, as Torgoff writes, in many respects, “the book is remarkably frank about her early years in Baltimore and her time as a prostitute. It is also replete with information about her life with drugs and history of addiction.” In the book, Billie wrote, “I’ve had my troubles with the habit for fifteen years on and off. I’ve been on and I’ve been off. As I said before, when I was really on, nobody bothered me. I got in trouble both times I tried to get off. I’ve spent a small fortune on stuff. I’ve kicked and stayed clean; and I’ve had my setbacks and had to fight all over again to get straight.”
These were tough words in 1956, an era when any description or admission of drug use labeled you an outcast. Torgoff reminds us that “any portrayal of narcotics had been banned by the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 and no major studio would go near the subject,” but once Frank Sinatra’s portrayal of a drug-addicted jazz musician in Otto Preminger’s 1956 film The Man of the Golden Arm broke through, “Lady felt that perhaps the time had arrived for her to tell her story.”
“Billie Holiday was in the unusual position of being a felon publishing a book about a subject for which she had been convicted and served time and that she had just recently been arrested for drug use once again — and, of course, she was still using drugs,” Torgoff wrote. “The book concludes with a chapter entirely about narcotics…with a final chapter on Lady’s most recent troubles with the law.” The book, ultimately, “was really the first significant celebrity dope confessional of the modern age” and resulted in “burnishing the legend of Billie Holiday as the great American junkie/jazz songstress of sorrow, and more than ever turning it into her brand.”
In a November, 1956 radio interview with Mike Wallace, he asked Billie “why so many jazz greats seemed to die early — Bix Beiderbecke, Fats Waller, Charlie Christian, Charlie Parker?” Her now famous reply: “The only way I can answer that question, Mike, is that we try to live a hundred days in one day, and that we try to please so many people. Like myself, I want to bend this note, bend that note, sing this way, sing that way, and get all the feeling, eat all the good foods, and travel all over in one day, and you can’t do it.”
When CBS Television chose to produce “The Sound of Jazz,” a special production of their series The Seven Lively Arts, series producer Robert Herridge asked jazz critics Nat Hentoff and Whitney Balliett to assemble the greatest jazz artists of the era to play on a show to be broadcast on December 8, 1957. Among this group of performers, of course, was Billie Holiday, but her image as the “American junkie/jazz songstress of sorrow” led to a demand by the show’s sponsor to remove her. “We must not put into America’s homes, especially on Sunday, someone who’s been imprisoned for drug use.”
It is in this context that this excerpt from Bop Acopalypse is presented — a “Moment in Time” indelibly etched in the minds of those who honor this great woman and those who accompanied her on this date.
Perhaps nobody had ever described the fundamental spirit and sensibility of the jazz life of the time better or more honestly: “to live a hundred days in one day.” Lady had put her finger on the very romantic but enigmatic life force that drove jazz and produced some of its greatest artistic breakthroughs and triumphs at the same time that it seemed to engender the kind of addiction and alcoholism that would consume some of its greatest artists. And nobody personified that spirit and sensibility more than Billie Holiday.
When Herridge, Balliett, and Hentoff contemplated doing a show without her, they simply could not abide the prospect. Herridge delivered the message that if Billie Holiday was not allowed to appear, they would all walk off the show. The gambit worked, and on December 8, 1957, the segment was introduced by John Crosby: “Billie Holiday is one of a handful of really great jazz singers. Her blues are poetic, highly intense….Playing with her here today are some of the musicians who accompanied her back in the thirties on some of the greatest jazz records ever made.”
And there they were, all arranged in a semicircle around a stool in the center of Studio 58: Roy Eldridge and Doc Cheatham on trumpets; Lester Young, Ben Webster, and Coleman Hawkins – three of the greatest tenor sax players in the history of jazz; Gerry Mulligan, the youngster of the group, on baritone saxophone; Mal Waldron on piano; Milt Hinton on bass; Vic Dickenson on trombone; and Ossie Johnson on drums.
“There’s two kinds of blues – there’s happy blues and sad blues,” Lady remarked in a voice-over that was heard as she walked to her stool and settled down in front of the mike. “I don’t know, the blues is a sort of mixed-up thing, you just have to feel it. Anything….I do sing, it’s a part of my life.”
Although she was often referred to as a blue singer, Lady had in fact only recorded three songs in the traditional twelve-bar blues format, and the band now broke into one of them, “Fine and Mellow,” the B-side of the 1939 release of “Strange Fruit.” Like the others, it was a blues that she had penned herself, and no sooner did she open her mouth than the studio was suffused with magic.
My man don’t love me
Treats me oh so mean
Lady was dressed simply in a pale woolen dress that just covered her knees, her hair pulled tightly back into a ponytail that revealed a pair of earrings, which glimmered in the studio lights. She looked quite thin compared to the once ample figure of her youth – “She was just a little bitty woman,” as Roy Eldridge remarked, shocked by how much she’d changed – and yet, despite everything she’d been through, it was uncanny how she appeared more luminous, more beautiful with each passing moment.
Ben Webster took the first solo. Like others in the room, he had has own special connection to Lady – “a little light housekeeping,” as Roy Eldridge put it. In Webster’s case it was a dalliance back in the thirties that had ended when he gave Lady a black eye. Billie’s mother, Sadie, had gotten so angry when she saw her daughter’s black eye that she had chased Webster all the way down from their apartment to a cab on the street, drubbing him with an umbrella.
Lester Young was the next to blow – the man who had been her dearest friend. From the moment Prez had arrived for rehearsal two days earlier, it was sadly obvious to all that he was deteriorating. He’d kept quietly to himself the whole time, wearing carpet slippers because his feet hurt so much, and when Lady had invited all the musicians back to her apartment from ribs and greens, Prez hadn’t even come. Twenty years had passed since they had shared their first joint together, when he played so brilliantly behind her on “I Must Have That Man,” the song that began their musical romance. Their relationship had had its ups and downs over the years, leading to a lingering estrangement that saddened both of them. At the age of forty-eight Prez looked haggard, his deep-set green eyes laden with melancholy, but as he raised the horn to his lips and played with everything he had left, you could once again hear the love he had for her. As Nat Hentoff describes it, “He blew the sparest, purest blues chorus I had ever heard. Billie, smiling, nodding to the beat, looked into Prez’s eyes and he into hers. She was looking back, with the gentlest of regrets for their past. Prez was remembering too. Whatever had blighted their relationship was forgotten in the communion of music. Sitting in the control room I felt tears, and saw tears on the faces of most of the others there.” Watching and listening, Hentoff was stunned. Instead of the “cracked husk of what she had been before,” Lady was “in full control of the tart, penetrating, sinuously swinging instrument which was her voice.”
Then Lady traded lines with gorgeous solos by Mulligan, Hawk, Dickenson, and Eldridge. “Love is just like a faucet, it turns off and on,” she sang with a wistful smile, bringing the song home, leaving no doubt that she was telling the story of her life – as she always did. “Sometimes when you think it’s on, baby, it has turned off and gone.”
And with that, the Lady who wanted to live a hundred days in one day was gone herself.
“The rest of the program was all right,” recalled Hentoff, “but this had been its climax – the empirical soul of jazz.”
It is a performance that stands as perhaps the greatest moment of jazz ever captured on film. Everything about it is redolent of their love for the music and each other and the great musical legacy they had all shared during an era that was fading away, along with their lives.
Excerpted from Bop Acopalypse: jazz, race, the beats & drugs
by Martin Torgoff
Billie Holiday, 1958
photo by Burt Goldblatt