I’m on to a chapter about jazz in my book at the moment and earlier this evening I was just reminding myself about Billie Holiday. What a fantastic singer she was. She had the most turbulent life – absolutely awful as a child especially. That all came out in one of the most amazing, original bluesy voices ever. And the best thing of hers that I ever heard was a song called “Fine and Mellow”. I first came across it in a documentary on the TV – probably BBC2 and probably the late eighties. The memory about the timing is hazy, but not the performance, which was extraordinary.
Billie sings this woozy, wistful blues about a man who’s done her wrong, but who she can’t resist, and then there is the most amazing array of the greatest saxophonists and other brass players taking their turns to embellish the song, paying tribute to Lady Day. Lester Young, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Gerry Mulligan, the list goes on. It’s a recording of a performance on an American TV show in 1957. It must have been mesmeric to have been there witnessing this. Everyone is in the zone. I’ve rarely seen a performance in which there is clearly so much love, so much mutual respect. Subtly expressed, but deep. I especially note Gerry Mulligan, the only white man playing a solo: in 1957 when these things in America might still have mattered. He just plays like he is the luckiest man on earth to be there.
I think he was.
So, thanks to the ever-brilliant YouTube, here’s the video in question. It’s nine minutes long, including the gauche introduction, but every second is worth it. I promise you!