Billie Holiday and Lester Young had as close and creative a musical friendship as any two people could. All agree: the pair themselves, their friends and musical colleagues, their biographers, and anyone else with a view.
How can you get a proper sense of that friendship, 70 and 80 years after the event? The scattered sayings of Lester, the ghost-written memoirs of Billie, the grainy record of Fine and mellow on the 1957 Sound of jazz television film, the recollections of others: none of these give more than occasional clues about the chemical secret of their combination. The only real way of getting anywhere near the core of it is to listen, with care, and over and over again, to the great records they made together in New York studios between January 1937 and March 1940.
Me, myself and I, recorded on 15 June 1937, may not be the most obvious example to choose, but listening to it gives as close an insight as any into what a singer and a tenor saxophonist can accomplish together.
Lester Young arrived in New York in spring 1934 to join the Fletcher Henderson band. He was 25 years old, but already a jazz veteran. He’d played the saxophone since the age of about 13 and spent years wandering from state to state playing with his father’s band. In Kansas City he came to the attention of Count Basie, making his first recordings, including Oh lady be good, with a section of the Basie band in Chicago in November 1936. For those who were paying attention, including the talent-scout John Hammond, it was obvious that a new and important jazz voice was in the air, a tenor saxophonist to challenge the dominance of Coleman Hawkins and the others. It was Hawkins he replaced when he joined Henderson’s band in New York.
Billie Holiday had lived in New York for much longer, since she was 14 years old. Lester’s upbringing may have been chaotic and peripatetic; hers was far worse. Born in poverty in Baltimore, she was cared for, but never well, by various relatives of her mother Sadie, who worked as a cleaner and prostitute. After a rape attempt on her she was sent to live in a Catholic children’s home. Finally her mother took her in 1929 to New York, where she worked the streets and served in bars, until her remarkable singing began to earn her the admiration of Harlem, and, in 1933, of John Hammond. At 17 she was already a professional singer.
It was in the bars that Lester came across Billie singing, and it wasn’t long before he was playing alongside her. According to her account,
From then on Lester knew how I used to love to have him come around and blow pretty solos behind me. So wherever he could, he’d come by the joints where I was singing, to hear me or sit in.
In his early New York days Lester lodged with Fletcher Henderson and his wife Leora, until Leora’s domineering behaviour drove him away. Alarmed by finding rats in one of the Harlem hotels he used, he was invited to stay with Billie and her mother in their apartment, apparently enticed by Sadie’s home cooking. ‘It was wonderful having a gentleman around the house’, recalled Billie. Everyone agrees that the relationship between Billie and Lester was asexual – she preferred dominant men as partners, and he was far from a dominant personality – but that the emotional as well as musical bonds that now linked them were strong and indissoluble. It was from this period that Lester became known as ‘Pres’ (a reference to Franklin D. Roosevelt) and Billie as ‘Lady Day’ – jocular additions to the aristocracy of jazz. Lester also began to wear his ‘pork pie’ hat, a badge of the eccentricity that marked out his behaviour and language. Together in the bars and clubs they played, smoked (joints) and drank (‘top and bottoms’, slugs of half gin, half port).
So by the time of their first joint recording, on 25 January 1937, the musical understanding between Billie and Lester must have been complete. It seems that little preparation went into the studio sessions, and there were few rehearsals. You would hardly know, to judge from the masterly performances, including Lester’s fine opening solo, on ‘This year’s kisses’ during that first session.
‘Me, myself and I’ was recorded for Vocalion (there are two takes) on the fourth joint session, on 15 June 1937. The performances were credited to ‘Billie Holiday and her Orchestra’. The Orchestra consisted of James Sherman on piano (standing in for Teddy Wilson), Buck Clayton on trumpet, Edmond Hall on clarinet, Lester Young on tenor sax, and the Basie rhythm section: Freddie Green on guitar (Billie’s lover at this time, it seems), Walter Page on bass and Jo Jones on drums.
The tune is bouncy and up-beat, very different from the slower and more soulful songs normally associated with Billie Holiday (the session also included the classic romance ‘A sailboat in the moonlight’). It was a new song, composed by Irving Gordon with words by Allan Roberts and Alvin S. Kaufman – none of them at all distinguished, although Gordon was invited by Duke Ellington in the same year to provide lyrics for some of his tunes. Several bands picked up the tune around this time, including Benny Goodman’s, with Martha Tilton on vocals. On the surface the words seem direct and ingenuous:
Me, myself and I
Are all in love with you
We all think you’re wonderful
Me, myself and I
Have just one point of view
There’s no one else like you
It can’t be denied dear
You brought the sun to us
We’d be satisfied dear
If you’d belong to one of us
So if you pass me by
Three hearts will break in two
Cause me, myself and I
Are all in love with you
[Repeat from start]
The divided, triple nature of the lover’s self might, on a darker, more suspicious reading, add a slight undertone of doubt: the breaking of three hearts, not just one, in the last verse, sounds catastrophic. Is this a more than usually fragile affair? But the Billie Holiday version has no such complexities: it’s a plain celebration of love.
A very short, one-breath introduction by Lester leads straight into Billie’s singing. She sings the four verses straightforwardly, with few decorations and just a few notes from Buck Clayton. After the first four verses come the solos: Edmond Hall, light in tone and swinging close to the beat on his clarinet, Buck Clayton’s heavier, breathier trumpet, Sherman’s piano, more pedestrian and less suave than that of the absent Teddy Wilson. The rhythm section keeps perfect time, unobtrusive except for the occasional off beat by Jo Jones. Then Billie resumes with the repeats of the first verses. This time she sings the words with slightly stronger and more off-beat emphases. You’ve only to listen to the monotonous, over-smooth version of Martha Tilton on the Benny Goodman version to appreciate how completely Billie transforms a slight song into a mature masterpiece studded with small variations.
There’s no solo for the tenorist, but there doesn’t need to be. What completely transforms the track, lifting it far above the mundane, is the reintroduction of Lester’s sax as accompaniment to these last verses. Though ‘accompaniment’ is certainly the wrong word, even if the recording balance fails to treat the sax and voice as equals. Admittedly, the tenor line is quiet, soft and undemonstrative. Lester deliberately avoids overshadowing or interrupting the bright voice. But he plays a true counterpoint. He weaves his own complex thread, the same thread, though irregularly phrased, across all four verses, quite independent of Billie’s tune but also entirely complimentary. This line has all the key Lester features: a light grace, an unforced but steady forward drive, and a reluctance to break loose from its self-imposed restraint.
Two years later, Billie was quoted as saying,’ I don’t think I’m singing. I feel like I am playing a horn. I try to improvise like Les Young or Louis Armstrong’. Conversely, she said, ‘Lester sings with his horn… You listen to him and can almost hear the words.’ Performing together, they’re a true duet.
The extended dream of the tenor sax only comes to an end when the whole band returns for the final line, ‘are all in love with you’, a decisive and joyful climax to an ecstatic performance, that lasts for a mere 3 minutes 35 seconds. ‘Sing and swing’ was the label attached to this sort of music at the time, but it’s a tag that’s quite inadequate to describe the subtle interpenetration of voice and instrument when Lester and Billie are in flow.
There are no contemporary written or visual accounts of this recording, or indeed any of the New York sessions. But maybe none are needed to be able to capture, in your mind’s eye, the glances and smiles that passed between Billie and Lester during the magic fifty seconds that end ‘Me, myself and I’.