Here’s a story about trying to get to interview Roy Haynes.
Lizette Jackson Young with her son Lester Willis Young.
Looking for Lester: A Filmmaker’s Log
Willie Alexander calls it “a non-stop seagull opera.” That’s what was going on above the Shalin Lui Performing Art Center in Rockport, Massachusetts. The summer afternoon headed toward evening as low light hit the tops of the waves going to shore. I watch from the concert hall above the tide where on stage, one of world’s greatest rhythm kings tunes his drum kit. Roy Haynes dressed in a Yankees shirt meticulously taps, rolls, and adjusts.
I’m there to conduct an interview with Mr. Haynes about the iconic tenor saxophone player Lester Young, the subject of my documentary film. Roy Haynes is a national treasure; some consider him the father of modern jazz drumming. He has played with Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Stan Getz, Bud Powell and Sarah Vaughn. Born in Boston, he began his career with Luis Russell and at age twenty-five he went on to work with Lester Young. At eighty-eight years old, the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master was one of the precious few left who could give me a first hand account of this jazz icon.
Over the years I’ve collected interviews to stockpile for a film on Lester Young. I’ve talked to Amiri Baraka, BB King, Lee Konitz, David Amram, Junior Mance and Joe Lovano, all presophiles. In once instance Lester was referred to by a writer as the bridge between Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. When Dizzy Gillespie heard that he quipped, “Pres is no bridge, he is the river.” Billie Holiday named him “Pres” the President of all saxophone players because like FDR at that time Pres was the most important musician in the land. He dubbed her Lady Day and they were kindred spirits.
In the 1990’s I purchased the rights to Lester Young’s last audio interview. It is a free wheeling forty-five minute conversation with the French Le Hot Jazz journalist Francois Postif. The first person account covers the arc of Lester’s life; from his first 10 years in New Orleans with his mother, to his tenure in his father’s band; to Count Basie’s star soloist and his years on the road. Pres was playing in Paris when the interview took place. A few months later he died in the Alvin Hotel overlooking Birdland on 52nd Street in NYC. He was forty-nine years old.
The Postif interview is an oral account of Lester’s life and a precious jazz document and oral history. I first heard it listening to Phil Schaap radio show while driving though Manhattan on Lester’s birthday. Pres used to say, “You got to tell a story.” As a saxophone playing filmmaker I could see a story as I listened more intently.
Roy finished with the drums but the piano tuner was still at it, so we moved below leaving the limpid Fitz Henry Lane light for Green Room fluorescence. The elevator door closed slowly. Roy said, “Slow boat to China” and paused, “when Charlie Parker heard Lester play that number, he decided to play it too.” Roy played with Bird after Lester went with Norman Granz and Jazz at the Philharmonic.
I hadn’t heard that story. Roy’s memory crackled like this sound. Snap Crackle was the nickname that George Shearing and Al McKibbon gave Roy, a roaring fire of beats. I’ve been trying to speak with him for years. Access is a big issue for documentary films, especially if you are coming in from the cold like I am. Connecting with folks is long hard work. I’ve been fortunate to talk with Sonny Rollins about Lester but getting to a time that will work is rough. On the flip side, I had mailed Mr. Jabbar my trailer on DVD and much to my astonishment he watched it and called. Kareem’s father was a Julliard schooled trombonist whose dream was to play with the Count Basie Band. He had the skill but not the improvisatory chops to make the band. Kareem grew up listening to Lester but had never heard his speaking voice. He was moved by the trailer and just wanted to communicate that.
On a sad note a year ago I missed an opportunity to speak with Hank Jones. Hank accompanied Pres on Gjon Mili’s brilliant 1944 Academy Award Nominated short film Jammin’ the Blues. He passed before I got a date. Above is a photograph of Hank and Lester standing outside the Five Spot that Herb Snitzer shot. The door closed, another NEA Jazz Master with intimate knowledge of Pres gone.
Roy Haynes drumming was influenced by one of Lester’s best friend’s papa Jo Jones. The two played together in Count Basie Band of the Thirties. In a Smithsonian interview Roy says when he heard Papa Jo Jones playing on The World is Mad, he realized that’s what he wanted to do. Lester too began by playing drums in this father’s band and in the Postif interview he talks about his decision to stop drumming. It’s a comical section and shows Lester’s renowned sense of humor. I was looking forward to Roy’s response.
American Studies professor Joel Dinerstein wrote a compelling essay called Lester Young: the Birth of the Cool. In it he makes a strong case for Lester as the originator of a stage persona that younger musicians like Miles later adopted. Dinerstein, who teaches at Tulane University, says Lester “modeled a strategy of self-presentation that became the dominant emotional style of African American jazz musicians.” Pres came of age during the dynamic years of black migration, when American Race relations where undergoing a radical shift. Lester was a rara avis, one of a kind. I want to explore this idea as Pres being the originator of cool. Way before Miles, Dinerstein posits that the real birth of the cool may have happened on August 27th 1909 when Lester Young came into the world. Roy hung with Miles. He called himself and Miles “the coolest of the cool.”
Some hubris, some truth: shades, tailored suits, perpetual youth, Gull Wing sports car. It was all part of the Roy Haynes image. How did Roy Haynes see this?
We got to China and got of the slow boat and things got hot. I turned on the lights in the Green Room. The camera rested on a tripod and Roy shouted, “You didn’t tell me you we’re going to film? He turns to his son Craig and says, “I’m not prepared for this. I thought we were just going to talk and take a picture. NO RECORDING. “ Roy was adamant. “I’m saving all this for my own book.” I had encountered this attitude before when I spoke to Chico Hamilton. I told him this could be an asset to have a transcription of the recording. He had no eyes for that. He was not going to give anything away to some whippersnapper, especially one he didn’t even know.
Still Roy was very accommodating. He wanted to talk even kept dropping little bombs. He told me he was present when Pres met his third wife Mary. Their children Lester Jr. and Yvette are both PhD’s in the field of education and both have not wanted to be involved. They are very private like their father.
Every African American musician of his generation had dealt with some kind of exploitation by the culture by the dominant culture. The skin game is age old, a human disease. As an Italian/Russian/ Jewish filmmaker I feel that Lester is a brother from another Mother of a darker color and that is why I continue the quest.
In the Postif interview Lester talks about his brush with racism “right here in gay Parie.”
Postif: Can you tell us some anecdotes about your independent mind?
Pres: “I would have left her the other night if I had $500. I just can’t take that bullshit, you dig, it’s all bullshit and they what everyone who is a Negro to be an Uncle Tom or an Uncle Remus or an Uncle Sam and I can’t make it.
Postif: Not here, not in France.
Lester: Sheeeet, are you kidding? I’ve been here two weeks. I’ve been picking up on that.
Postif: I don’t think so.
Pres: No? Well I won’t tell you what jumped off. Seeing is believing and hearing is a bitch. It’s a sound. Right here in Gay Paris. Maybe it would not happen to you. You aren’t a colored person, like I am, you dig? They are going to take advantage of me. But all I can tell you is what happened and I’m not going to tell you that part of it.
Lester did not want to talk about the particulars of the racial incident. Do people talk about times when they were personally mistreated and humiliated.
Pres: But it did happen by somebody you wouldn’t believe, a great person. But it is the same way all over you dig. You just fight for your life, that’s all, until death do we part, you got it made.
At that point Postif changes the subject and cuts Pres off. I like to think Lester could have said. “Skin has no feeling until you touch it. Lady P, you dig. And scars have no feeling at all.”
In the Tragedy and the Triumph of Lester Young, Ron Tabor writes. Lester, “was also disturbed by the racist nature of the popular music business, in which Blacks are often the innovators, while others, usually white, copy the pioneers, make the innovations palatable to white people, market the product, and wind up with the fame and/or the fortune. Lester was especially irked by the fact that many of his imitators (Stan Getz and Paul Desmond?) were getting more work, were making much more money, and were so much better known than he was.”
Drummer Connie Kay famous for his work in the Modern Jazz Quartet, comments: “Was Lester depressed? Lester was depressed like all black musicians in the States that are talented and not appreciated, man. If you’re not strong enough, it’ll get to you. You go around the world and see how other artists are appreciated and accepted and you wonder. Here’s a guy who is talented, who is considered a genius, and what is he getting out of it? He’s got to work like a dog to keep two cents in his pocket and feed his family and keep a roof over this head. And you see people less talented, and they’re out there making it.”
A few years back I spent two hours one Sunday afternoon in Junior Mance’s apartment above 14th Street talking about Lester and his impact. Roy told me he was responsible for getting Junior the gig with Pres. The piano player and the drummer were both in their early twenties playing with Pres. What I found so special was Junior’s story about Lester’s funeral. He told me, Al Hibbard sung the old hymn “In the Garden” and Billie Holiday was not allowed to perform. At the end of the interview I could see he was moved. He told me he had not thought about these things for many years. Duke Ellington said, “The memory of things gone is important to a jazz musician.”
Lester’s love for Lady Day was plain. Her voice and his tenor were “of the same mind.” Just listen and look at the 1957 CBS Sound of Jazz with Billie singing Fine & Mellow.* Her expression while listening to Lester says it all. On Sunday, March 15th 1959 at 3:00am Lester Willis Young passed. Four months later, Billie Holiday died.
Roy played with Lady Day on one of her last dates in his hometown at George Wein’s Storyville in April 1959. Was the drummer so gone by Billie that he named his son, Craig Holiday Haynes? Craig was in the corner looking at his phone, half-listening to all this call and response between his father and me. I didn’t get to ask that question. It was time for sound check.
At the beginning of the summer I spoke with the lovely Monica Getz, Stan’s wife. In this picture Monica watches Billie Holiday listening to Pres during the 1957 recording from Sound of Jazz. In one of her emails she wrote. “Lester Young was as pure, incorruptible, peaceful and innocent as they come and Stan (the best part of him) adored and worshipped that honesty. He was a funny, intelligent and independent original, brilliant and unbending in his pursuit of individual serenity and peacefulness. He was hugely misunderstood… and naturally considered a little weird, but in truth, because he had his value system in place at all times, drunk or sober, he was wiser than most. A very poignant human being, the best counterpoint for Billy Holiday with an equally poignant honesty.
Lester Young’s walk through the jungle of America 1909-1959 was no cakewalk. Like great artists his life and art are two sides of a spinning coin. Pres confirmed the humanitarian power of his art by transforming his pain, suffering and humor into music of immeasurable beauty and joy. John Lewis who knew Pres from living in Albuquerque played with Lester in the fifties and said, “Lester is an extremely gentle, kind, considerate person… always concerned about the underdog”. In the Postif interview Lester uniquely confirms his philosophy in a language all his own, “It’s got to be sweetness, man, you dig? Sweetness can be funky, filthy, or anything else. But which part do you want?”
With the equipment wrapped, I headed out into Cape Ann’s crepuscular light. Sitting on a porch across from the Arts Center was Steve Schwartz a longtime WGBH Jazz disc jockey. Steve was just terminated from WGBH-radio in Boston after curating jazz to New England ears for close to three decades. The news was bad news for Boston area Jazz lovers. Johnny Hodges, Serge Chaloff, Paul Gonsalves, Tony Williams, Herb Pomeroy were all turning over in their graves. Once again business trumps culture. Yet here is Roy Haynes playing to a sold out house in Rockport, Massachusetts. It was great to hang and I still hope to convince him to talk on camera. Maybe I can persuade Monica Getz’s to charm him with some “sweetness” and invite him to her place in for a chat.
Henry Ferrini was a member of the early 60’s clarinet playing hordes. He’s been playing one kind of woodwind or another ever since. He has made films about the the poets Jack Kerouac, Charles Olson andVincent Ferrini. His work screens on Public Broadcasting and in museums around the world.
Check out the Royal Roost 12/11/48 recording with Miles Davis, Al Haig, Tommy Potter and Max Roach. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qjfSv9JwXgA
** CBS Sound of Jazz http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tF-S9fGlAyM