The program is best remembered for the final musical pairing of Billie Holiday and Lester Young—as it should be. We’ve seen Holiday before we hear her. During one of the Basie band segments, she walks around the back of the stage, and even whispers in the Count’s ear during one of his solos. Wouldn’t you love to know what she said?
It wasn’t even known if Young would show. He was in a world of hurt by this time, and not long for the world. He’d die March 15, 1959, aged forty-nine, with Holiday to follow on July 17, aged forty-four. They were babes in one way, but life’s capricious chronology is a funny, maddening thing, and one person’s forty-something is another’s 1008.
This can be both good and bad. Throughout The Sound of Jazz, that’s a reoccurring theme; there’s good blues, and bad blues. Holiday and Young didn’t interact at any point before the program. They were kept apart, presumably because there had just been so much between them. Young was in a delicate state. Writer Nat Hentoff advised him to sit out the Basie big band sections, and then try, if he was up to it, to join the Basie small band for Holiday’s performance of “Fine and Mellow.”
1957 was actually one of Holiday’s best years as an artist. She was back in the small band environment, thanks to Norman Granz, which always suited her best. When she sings that word “yellow” we know what’s coming, we are cognizant of the advancing rhyme, but what sweetness we are hit with when we get those following words of “fine and mellow” from her mouth. And they take the perfect amount of time arriving.
Ben Webster plays the first solo, and I’m not sure what anyone expected next. I don’t think anyone—save Lady Day—could have been anything less than shocked by what did occur.
Not only did Young take a solo, he played one of the solos of his life. Do you know how many amazing solos Lester Young had? It’s not five. We’re talking big numbers. The camera, for whatever reason, remains on Holiday’s face for most of that solo. We watch as her reaction registers. Her reactions. If you have a best friend, you speak at their funeral, or they speak at yours. You can’t have both. Only, I think we do get that here. Not to be macabre, because that’s the last thing this is—it’s pure joy, because it’s pure life.