After a taste of Coleman Hawkins last week, I hankered for some Lester Young. I found a feast. Both clips embedded here feature Hawk and Prez along with a pantheon of 50s all-stars. Contrary to prevailing myth, the decade’s verve wasn’t buttoned down by Eisenhower, Ozzie, and Harriet. Jazz giants strode the earth, and impresarios like Norman Grantz filled philharmonic concert halls and television sound stages with the music.
Set 1: There’s a lot going on here, so grab a drink and take a seat. This YouTube clip called Famous & Recognizable Jazz Artists runs 14:59 in length. Its program notes identify the musicians but not the tunes or source of the video. I think it’s one of Norman Grantz’s Jazz All-Star productions from the early 50s, and it may be Norman’s voice doing the countdowns between takes. THe set opens with a duet by Coleman Hawkins (tenor) and Charlie Parker (alto). Unbelievable – watch these guys try to out-cool each other. They’re backed by a rhythm section heard throughout the set: Hank Jones (piano), Ray Brown (bass), and the hyper-kinetic Buddy Rich (drums), Take 2 (at 2:53) features Bird with the trio. Take 3 (at 5:15) settles down to the trio alone. At 7:12 Bill Harris (trombone) and Lester Young walk in. Dig that pork pie hat! Prez appears with and without it through the rest of the set. The gig swings into high gear at 10:43 when Harry “Sweets” Edison (trumpet), Flip Phillips (another tenor), and Ella Fitzgerald join the jam. Who could resist her infectious smile? Just try to stay in your seat !
Set 2: With Prez swinging the ax, the finale of set 1 chops like the Basie band. So why not go to the well for more? Jammin’ the Blues features the Count and Lester (with his signature hat) in grainy film footage shot in 1944. There’s some kind of 1980s post-production video effects going on here, not necessarily authentic but thrilling all the same.
Set 3: Let’s close this week’s Mouffe with a reprise of a legendary moment in jazz history, the reunion of Lester Young and Billie Holiday not long before their untimely deaths. Fine and Mellow was produced in 1957 for the CBS “Sound of Jazz” series. Other musicians in this poignat performance include Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Gerry Mulligan, Roy Eldridge, Doc Cheatham, Vic Dickenson, Danny Barker, Milt Hinton, and Mal Waldron.
YouTuber WhenSwingWasKing, who uploaded this cultural treasure, calls it the single most famous “live jazz” performance in TV history: “Billie’s visual reaction to [Pez’s] moving solo remains as eloquent as anything she ever sang; a touching finale to their historic musical partnership.”
This isn’t phony, made-for-TV emotion. It’s the real deal. It’s OK if you tear up, too.