Wednesday, July 15, 2009

MAGICAL BONDS: Billie Holiday~Lester Young

My husband patiently feeds me tidbits of jazz history from time to time, hoping that I'll abandon my Philistine attitude toward this musical genre. We watched a DVD of an old TV special, "The Sound of Jazz", the other night, and there began my investigation of a couple of characters whose contribution to jazz has turned out to be no less than iconic: Billie Holiday and Lester Young.

There was a legendary bond between these two artists. She a vocalist, he a tenor saxophone player. Whether the bond originated as a failed romance isn't clear, but it endured as a lifelong close platonic friendship, and a magical musical rapport. Young nicknamed Holiday "Lady Day"; her nickname for him was "Prez".

"Young's sax playing is the horn equivalent to Holiday's voice; melancholy, melodic, and understated. Prez could dance solos around Holiday as well as he could support her when she delivered her own musical soliloquy. They seemed to anticipate the others movements just before they happened. Their musical lines flitted and flapped around one another, and occasionally they flew side by side." (HERE, and more from this link at end of post.)

Both were addicts, she a slave to heroin, he to alcohol. Both died far too soon, she at age 44, he at 49.

"If hot jazz was defined by Louis Armstrong in the 1920s, then the lyrical side of jazz found its perfect exponents in Billie Holiday and Lester Young during the 1930s and 1940s. Their collaborations revealed a different side of the jazz art form. Here we can savor emotion without cheap sentimentality, simplicity without simple-mindedness, a force of expression that is achieved through restraint and understatement. In the long lineage of cool jazz, we constantly find the creative bursts coming at us through the work of couples -- Bix & Tram, Miles & Gil, Getz & Gilberto -- almost as if music this sensitive required some sort of magnetic, mutual attraction, an exemplary pairing to make it possible. Call it a musical romance, if you will. But at the top of the hierarchy, our First Lady (Day) and Pres of the democracy of cool jazz are Billie and Lester. "
Reviewer: Ted Gioia

Any dedicated astrology buff will immediately wonder whether the magical bond between these two icons can be identified in their natal charts. Let's see!

Billie Holiday was born on 7 April 1915 in Harlem, New York, at 2.30am


Lester Young was born on 27 August 1909 in Woodville Mississippi. No time of birth known (12 noon chart used below).

Her Aries Sun and his Virgo Sun wouldn't immediately lead one to see a basic compatibility - Aries a fiery leader, impulsive and impetuous, Virgo a nitpicking perfectionist. Young's Virgo Sun has Mars in Aries in a scratchy quincunx aspect - he aimed at perfection in all things but was often de-railed by an urge to take risks (mainly with his health). His natal Mercury and Jupiter in Virgo are also in awkward quincunx with Saturn in Aries. While these Aries planets brought about his risk-taking and ability to play with spontaneity as well as perfection, they also provided an unhelpful edge to his inner personality.

The main link between these two artists is their Capricorn Moons. Exact degree in Young's case can't be established without his birth time, but Moon would lie between 9 and 23 degrees of Capricorn in his chart. It's more than likely to have been close enough to Holiday's Moon to be termed conjoined (within around 6 degrees). This provides a clear emotional bond and understanding of one another.

Holiday's 4 planets in Pisces (Mercury/Mars/Jupiter/Venus) soften her Aries-ness quite a lot, and draw in the emotional, almost psychic, appeal she had. Young's Virgo planets oppose her Pisces placements - and though the two signs are very different, this powerful multi-stranded opposition must have brought about a fine balance of perfection and emotional intensity, rather than discord, at least in their professional lives.

In general terms then, their bond came from shared Capricorn Moon, and dynamic tension between Virgo, Pisces, and Aries (perfection, emotion and spontaneity).

There's a clip from "The Sound of Jazz" at YouTube which shows the number described below - Billie Holiday sang "Fine and Mellow" acompanied by several sax players in turn. Lester Young's contribution comes at around 2.35 mins. into the clip.
"Prez, who had wrecked his body with alcohol, was in such ill health he couldn't stand for the duration of the six-minute song. Holiday launched into the song and each sax man took a turn. Gerry Mulligan was first and played a solo in double-time. Webster was next, blowing a beautiful, breathy chorus. And then it was time for Prez.

When it was Young's turn he wearily stood up, and locked eyes with Holiday as she sang a song with lines like "Love is like a faucet / It turns off and on". As Lady Day sang, Prez hit every note exactly in time with her and they took off like two eagles riding an air current as they rose higher and higher, way out of that studio and those television sets, circling around each other, Prez blowing the notes that sustained her as if he was the body to her soul, and then they came together in mid-air, as mating eagles will, and plummeted hundreds of feet earthward together, before breaking off and flying their separate ways.

People in the control booth had tears in their eyes. It was the swan song of a bittersweet affection. After the show, the two had some brief backstage conversation and then they bid goodbye. They each had less than two years to live. Prez would die alone in a New York hotel, his body finally calling it quits. Not long after that, Holiday would be arrested on her deathbed for heroin possession.

Young's sax playing is the horn equivalent to Holiday's voice; melancholy, melodic, and understated. Prez could dance solos around Holiday as well as he could support her when she delivered her own musical soliloquy. They seemed to anticipate the others movements just before they happened. Their musical lines flitted and flapped around one another, and occasionally they flew side by side. "

That is some purple prose!! I prefer my husband's simpler take on "Fine & Mellow". This comes from a 4-page article he wrote about "The Sound of Jazz" around 12 years ago (for any passing reader who is also a jazz fan, the full version is in the archives of Thinks Happen, here)
"The studio lighting is reduced dramatically to illuminate just Billie and a small group of musicians. She sings "Fine and Mellow" accompanied by a few members of the band and, for this number only, the addition of Lester Young, tenor sax. Holiday and Young, both alumni of Basie's earliest bands, were said to have been quite close in those days.

She is completely at ease in this setting. In the opening shot of her singing, her face is like a cameo etched from the darkness of the studio. Billie sings her phrases and then listens to the accompanying horn solos as if the musicians were speaking love to her, and indeed they might have been. She smiles during Young's solo, her half-lidded eyes convey her approval and maybe betray some secrets.....
Billie ends her number with a wry phrase, "Sometimes when you think it's on baby, it has turned off and gone", and a wry smile to match. She makes you sure she is speaking to someone in particular."


Wisewebwoman said...

I always feel so sad when reading of Billie and her short, troubled life. Such awesome talent, such powerful addiction, the 2 could not co-exist.
Lovely post, T. And Himself's got sturdier words than the turgid ones above his.

Rossa said...

I agree with WWW, though I can't say I ever got into Billie Holiday, I'm more of an Ella Fitzgerald fan. Her voice was pure "liquid chocolate" to me. Her rendition of April in Paris is one of my favourites.

Always wished I could sing like her. As a contralto, jazz suits my voice best. And of course her collaboration with Louis. I called my cat Satchmo (full name Bluenote Satchmo) as he's a Blue Smoke Maine Coon.

Aretha Franklin is another voice I love. My uncle was a sound engineer in LA for Electrosound and did a gig with Aretha. Said that in all his career and he did some of the biggest names she was the only one who was pitch perfect and gave him goosebumps! He never met Ella, before his time, but says her recordings do the same.

Twilight said...

WWW ~~~ She was such a brave lady!
Typically Aries on that score. Raped at age 11, into prostitution in order to make a living in early teenage. Mixed up with some abusive men later - which, it is said was the kind she was most attracted to. Then the addictions - seems she almost had a death-wish. So very sad. Yet the musicians she sang with loved and respected her. She'll be remembered for as long as jazz has a place in music.

Twilight said...

Rossa ~~~ Ella's voice is more easily digested - I agree, and she can sing just about anything - but Ella didn't have nearly the emotional pull that Billie had - in my opinion.

Aretha came along a bit later - I like some of her stuff, but not all.

Diana Krall is my own favourite, and current, jazz singer. I don't think anyone comes even near her at present. Very sexy styling, very easy to appreciate, even for a non-jazz buff like me.

anyjazz said...

Thanks for the nod. I had almost forgotten the piece I wrote so many years ago. Glad we dug it out. The Sound of Jazz was a legendary assembly of musicians. Somebody did a good thing.

Twilight said...

Anyjazz ~~~ You did a good thing yourself, in writing that!

You should write more.
(nag, nag.....nag!)

anthonynorth said...

When two talents come together in true harmony, a moment of magic is had.

Twilight said...

AN ~~~ It doesn't happen very often, but when it does it becomes the stuff of legend. :-)

The Next President of the United States said...

OK, I can't resist weighing in because The Sound of Jazz was my first real introduction to jazz - with the exception of seeing the Great Satchmo all over TV when I was a child in the '50s. They were playing Sound of Jazz reruns in the early '60s, and I can distinctly remember the session with Lady Blue and Lester Young, partly because of all the cigarette smoke wafting through the studio. (Being a pre-teen, I thought that was pretty cool!)

I really appreciate and love all three of the female vocalists mentioned, but I tend to lean toward Billie as the most unique. Ella is so wonderful, but too perfect; Aretha has great range, grit and soul, but lacks the soft edge. Billie is soul personified, and unlike the other two, who "worked" at their craft, Lady Blue's voice is an untrained, natural instrument.

Shawn Carson said...

that was a very fun article!
what a cool tv show that was! i wonder if it is still in reruns as i have never seen it. i also loved the song God Bless the Child by holiday which has been covered by numerous artists like blood sweat and tears and steve miller.
The horoscopes of these 2 interact along the virgo /pisces axis as young's saxophone stylings helped give form to holiday's dreamy lilting pisces voice. could they both have shared a moon / neptune opposition? this would explain the extreme highs and lows of their careers and personal lives.

Twilight said...

TNPOTUS ~~ Hi! Glad to have your take on this. :-)

I think Billie Holiday's style is an acquired taste. I'm only now starting to appreciate it myself.

There's so much to learn about the history of jazz - so many fascinating characters. I'll probably try another of these "magical bonds" posts about a couple more soon. :-)

Twilight said...

Shawn ~~~

Thanks Shawn, glad you enjoyed it.

Agreed on the Pisces/Virgo in their musical bond - I think that is at the core.

It's more than likely that they shared a close Moon/Neptune opposition I think. But without a time of birth for Young it's not certain. :-)