Every Film Clip of Lester Young, Preview Part 1: He Speaks!—UPDATED,BETTER Video & Audio!!
I will eventually present a series called Every Film Clip of Lester Young, as I’ve been doing for Charlie Parker. The series will be chronological, but I couldn’t resist first showing you this clip from 1958, because probably none of you has ever seen it. This is the only footage of Pres where he speaks! The musical segments have been online, but the talking has never been available.
Art Ford (1921-2006) hosted many programs, often featuring jazz artists, on radio in the 1940s, and then on TV in the 1950s. (Many early television hosts, such as Ed Sullivan, Garry Moore, Jack Paar, and Steve Allen, started in radio.) In 1958, Ford hosted Jazz Party, a performance program, once a week on Channel 13 in Newark, New Jersey. Channel 13 had begun broadcasting in 1948 as WATV, but in 1958 it was sold, and on May 7, the channel started a new life as part of the National Telefilm Associates (NTA) network. The first show in the jazz series was broadcast the next day, Thursday evening May 8, 1958, and the 90-minute programs continued on most Thursdays through December 25. They were generally shown a few days after they were filmed, and were broadcast simultaneously both on TV and radio, the latter in stereo—today we’d call that a “simulcast.” The studios were in the building known as the Mosque Theater, 1020 Broad Street, in Newark, which became known as Newark Symphony Hall in 1964. (Channel 13 first became a non-commercial educational station in September 1962 as WNDT, and since 1970 as WNET.)
The list of artists who appeared on the show is pretty amazing. It includes singers Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington, violinist Stuff Smith, guitarist Mary Osborne, trumpeters Roy Eldridge, Buck Clayton, Rex Stewart, and Red Allen, and many others, some appearing several times. Not all of the Jazz Party telecasts survive, but the veteran jazz film researcher Franz Hoffman of Berlin has posted many clips of the show online (as well as hundreds of other rare clips). Young was on twice, and the clip we’ll watch today was part of a show broadcast on September 25, 1958. This clip is courtesy of jazz film expert Mark Cantor, whose collection is one of the world’s largest. He posts some rare clips on his site and he may be contacted there as well.
The segment below begins in the last stretch of the program, after the musicians have already played several numbers. While the legendary stride pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith plays softly in the background, Ford is speaking. He mentions an upcoming show that will be filmed in New Orleans. (That show turned out to be the last one aired in the series.)
The format of the program was very informal. Ford invited certain musicians each week—for example, he asked trumpeter Charlie Shavers to lead the band for this program. But he put out the word that all musicians were welcome to drop by. And he appears to be honestly surprised when he sees Pres walk in while he’s in the middle of his announcement. He does a real “double take” (looks around casually, then quickly looks again more intensely), and says “I don’t see what I think I see, do I?!” A few seconds later, he adds the information that “They told me you drove by and stopped, but I didn’t believe it.”
As it happens—and it may be that Young did not know this until he arrived—this was one of two shows in the series where Coleman Hawkins was a scheduled guest. Ford loses no time emphasizing the contrast between their styles, introducing Young as the opposite of Hawkins “if you draw a line down the middle.” I’m sure that Young had heard this to death, but he is good-natured about it.
Ford has the information in front of him about an upcoming concert of Pres, because it will occur in the main auditorium of that very building, the Mosque Theater. So he goes right into the details, the fact that Young will be on a bill with Ahmad Jamal and singer Dakota Staton. But he doesn’t let Pres get in many words. Unfortunately, that was the style of the day on “live” radio and TV broadcasts, at least in the U.S.A. The idea was that the interviewee was not a professional announcer and would speak too slowly, hemming and hawing, and that the announcer had to keep things moving. But we do get to hear Pres a little, to see his relaxed manner, and —this is priceless—we see him say that he’s known Hawkins for “many moons,” one of his famous expressions.
I like the way Pres laughs when Ford stays “That’s why he stays young.” And saxophonist-educator Jeff Rupert, one of our Founding Members, points out that from 0:48 on, Pres is a little distracted, because he’s adjusting his saxophone—he checks the neck, his neckstrap, and the side keys (mainly the G# key), and at one point he reaches down to check lower keys. He’s getting ready to play, and impatient to begin.
Yet, a lot more happens in this 2-minute introduction. After the brief interview, Ford asks Young to play something. Pres says, “All right, I’ll step over there.” Ford says loudly, “Lester Young is coming—everybody watch their pocketbook and don’t give your right name.” (His joke is not really in good taste!) Pres says, half laughing, “But that is my.. (right name).” Ford, clearly delighted, adds, “Lester Young, the Pres, is here!”
He walks over to the musicians—they too are also visibly pleased to see him. (I will list the complete personnel in Part 2.) Then there is a fascinating bit of discussion between Pres and the band. It’s hard to hear because people are talking at the same time and overlapping. (Please send your suggestions to me and I’ll edit this passage.) It goes something like this:
Pres: Ivey Divey. [Another of his signature expressions.] I’ll just play [somebody else talks here, Pres continues] “Younger Than Me.” [I think that’s what he says—maybe that’s his code for “Mean to Me”?] You dig? In the key of C.
Smith asks him something that’s hard to hear: Do you want the [……]? ...no problem if you don’t want it?
Pres misunderstands and exclaims:
Pres: Are you kidding? Don’t you know it?
While he says that, Smith is saying something like “I didn’t share..” (Something about sharing the musical parts with another musician?)
Pres: Don’t you know that one? Don’t you know “Mean To Me”?
Smith: You know I know it. It’s you (….)
Everybody laughs, including Thompson and singer Mae Barnes—she’s behind Young at this point.
Smith takes the cigar out of his mouth and adds, “at the Vanguard?” Apparently, they had played this at the Village Vanguard. For a while, the Vanguard had a tradition of “all star” Sunday jam sessions—maybe it was something like that. Perhaps on that occasion Pres had played this song in a different key?
Pres: Well, groovy. Like this: Go ‘head, make me about eight and I’m gone. [Meaning: Give me an 8-measure introduction and then I’ll play.]
A voice, maybe Ford from offscreen, says: This is really unexpected! (Mae Barnes laughs.)
And now, the coolest moment of all: Instead of counting the tune off with numbers, Pres snaps his fingers while singing a beautiful little scat melody. They all understand him and they start right in! Watch and ENJOY:
Now, I mentioned that the music that follows—two songs—has been online. But some amazing things happen during those two numbers that I’d like to point out to you, and we get a bit more of Young’s voice. Plus, I’ll add two short clips that are not online. I’ll also explain the unexpected way that these shows were preserved, and give a complete list of the musicians. So we’ll watch and enjoy some more Pres next time!
All the best,
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