Jazz can be addictive, and it can also be repulsive. It depends where you’re coming from – Ed Sheeran to late Coltrane, for example, would be a big jump – and also on what you use as your entrée to its many wonders. You don’t want to be put off right at the start.
For me it was Lester Young. A double LP of 1940’s Lester, borrowed from my local library (look it up, kids) on a whim, pretty much kindled my interest, poor sound quality and all. Lester’s warm breathy tone, and his sly languorous solos floating across the band were pretty ear catching. And he had a certain personal style, verbally, sartorially, musically.
It’s hard to find a perfect example (more below), but here’s a taste..
Yesterday in a charity shop I came across a classic book on jazz, by Anglo-American Leonard Feather, who knew them all. Jazz inspires some truly compelling writing, both on the music (1, 2 for example) and on the people (Miles Davis’ brutal memoir is one for the ages). Feather’s smallish book is a series of portraits of the big names who he actually knew and with whom he worked – Armstrong, Holiday, Miles…and Prez, AKA Lester Young. The essay is a concise gem of Prez’s genius and his suffering. I reproduce it below.
If you read it you’ll see that it all went downhill pretty quickly. A lot of jazz fans claim that his later work is a pale shadow. I’m not convinced. The same was said of Charlie Parker **just before he had to enter the asylum at Camarillo, and people give his version of Loverman as evidence, recorded allegedly when he was blind drunk. When you hear it though, it’s actually achingly beautiful, one of the finest pieces of any music on record I’d say, reflecting all of Bird’s recent pain. Some people are hard to please.
I was lucky enough to be in the world’s greatest record shop recently, Amoeba Music in San Francisco, and got my hands on Lester’s Verve studio recordings, so in much better sound than some of the live stuff. It was out of print until a new release this year. A lot of people say he was already past it. It’s too early for me to have a view on it, but I doubt that the critics are right. Here’s an insightful review from their first release. I quote: Why does anyone need to hear eight CDs that trace the decline and collapse of this great man? Perhaps no one does. And perhaps no one needs to read King Lear, see Death of a Salesman or listen to Mahler’s 9th Symphony. Those who do will be enriched.
Jazz is as full of tragedy as Shakespeare, for sure. As a well considered Amazon review noted: But, while the first five discs will give you many hours of unalloyed joy, there is a scary, deepening sadness that comes with the final three. These are the last days of Lester, and beginning about halfway through disc six, you can hear the magic leaving him. From then on, he seems to shrink, suddenly losing all sense of the beat, sometimes playing only a few wayward notes, inept as any amateur on the instrument. By the time you hit the last Paris sessions of 1959, it is painful to listen to. What makes it even worse is the occasional flash, like dying lightning, of the old genius.
However, here’s that perfect example of prime 1944 Prez, a real find on YouTube. The filming is perfect, the remarkable Marie Bryant is perfect, and Prez is, well….perfect. Enjoy.
**Bird and Prez did record together too, check it out.