From Fort Gordon to Ferguson
From this picture you would think life in the U.S. Army was a cakewalk for Lester Young. Playing his horn, Joe Jones smiling in the back, as Italians say, dolce far niente. That is exactly what the Army would have wanted you to believe. The truth is quite the opposite.
Sixty-nine years ago today Lester Young was dishonorably discharged from the military. Early in 1945 he was court-martialed and sentenced to a year’s time at Fort Gordon, Georgia for possession of barbiturates and marijuana. A habit Lester was truthful about prior to his induction. Why did the military want a man with an acute drug and alcohol dependency?
We don’t know what degradations Lester suffered throughout his 10 months imprisonment. His own words state it bluntly, “A nightmare, man, one mad nightmare.” Bystanders report white guards who saw a picture of Lester’s wife, a white woman, tormented the prisoner. Writer Michael Steinman says, “he was a tall handsome light-skinned black man with an effeminate manner, high voice, funny way of speaking…I imagine those other inmates held him down, beat him, and raped him…” There is no documentary proof of this happening but many agree that Lester was a changed man when he got out of the Army.
Sixty-nine years after his release from the detention barracks, I wonder if this dishonorable discharge could be expunged from the record? Why did the Army not remand Lester until drug and alcohol issues where dealt with? Did Lester know his rights as a Conscientious objector? Any military lawyers out there think there is a case? One-thing writers agree on, Lester Young was an honorable man. Stan Getz’s wife Monica calls him, “the most sensitive and ethical man I ever met.” His music remains as a testament to truth, Beauty & Truth. Looking at America’s struggle against institutional racism today, it doesn’t seem like a very long ride from Fort Gordon, Alabama to Ferguson, Missouri. Lester’s mad nightmare like the death of Michael Brown stems from the same question Mychal Denzel Smith asks in his Nation article. “What is justice in a nation built on white supremacy and the destruction of black bodies? That’s the question we have yet to answer. It’s the question that shakes us up and makes our insides uncomfortable. It’s the question that causes great unrest.”
From Paris, during his last recorded interview in 1959, Lester wraps up his feelings on America by saying to Le Hot Jazz journalist François Postif. “They want everyone who’s a Negro to be an Uncle Tom, an Uncle Remus or an Uncle Sam, and I can’t make it. But it’s the same way all over. You just fight for your life. You dig? Until death do we part. You got it made.” A few months later Pres was gone. He was 49 years old.
Trailer Click Below
In 2014 Lester Young will have been gone 55 years, yet this swinging star shines brightly in the film-in-progress. In the film, Sonny Rollins calls Lester “god”, and a god he was for many players who paid their dues at mid-Century. The four-minute trailer includes interviews with Sonny Rollins, Harry Belafonte, Wayne Shorter, B.B. King, Lee Konitz, Joe Lovano, George Wein, David Amram, Amiri Baraka, Junior Mance, and Gunther Schuller. Collecting these interviews has been an ongoing process for about two years. Here are some pictures from the two-year journey that resulted in this trailer.
As a longtime documentary veteran, my approach uses contemporary places combined with archival film, interviews and music to evoke our shared history. In President of Beauty: The Life and Times of Lester Young, the music and America’s troubled social history combine to evoke a sense of this much-misunderstood American genius.
Years ago I began this process when I heard Phil Schaap play François Postif’s interview with Pres on the radio. I immediately knew this would be my next film. I wrote Postif inquiring about the rights. He in turn put me in touch with Michel DeLorme and I secured the rights. This historic forty-five minute audio interview recorded five weeks before Lester passed creates the narrative arc of the President of Beauty.
The film is now at a point where I need to work in the cities where Lester was domiciled. Shooting will take place in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Mississippi, Minneapolis, Paris and Kansas City with many more interviews to come. Ornette Coleman, René Urteger, Dan Morgenstern, Lewis Porter, and Don Byron. Interviews with artists, animation that visualizes Lester in his Paris Hotel, archival performances, and contemporary footage of Lester, comprise the visuals.
Today much has been accomplished on little funding. Having only shot interviews, my signature, as well as Lester’s, is not yet on this film. I need to catch the dawn over the Mississippi River, dusk at 12th Street and Vine, the rain on the streets of Paris and the intimate atmosphere of listening to jazz. Lester lives in these shadows of our cultural memory. I need your help to preserve what is here now by bringing Lester Young into focus. I need to connect with the world’s Presophiles to help raise the funding to tell Lester’s story with film. Thank you for your time and consideration. If you have any question please email.
In order to raise funds for the film, we are having a silent auction on a Selmer Mark VI tenor sax. #209100 This is no ordinary saxophone. The horn is signed by Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, Branford Marsalis, (picture not shown) and Joe Lovano who all have participated in the film. I will be interviewing Branford Marsalis in the coming months and will see if he wants to add his name. The perfectly playable horn was donated by a supporter and is valued from $3000-4000. I hope to raise significantly more. Anything above the value of the horn is tax-deductible.