My pal Vince Meghrouni–a fine saxman himself–posted this picture of Lester Young. Vince loves Lester Young. Loves Dexter Gordon more, probably, but he loves Lester Young. It’s a haunting photograph, he’s so thin, so gaunt, really, playing for nobody but the photographer in a bare room. Just the bed, a phone, a clarinet, and a saxophonist. I asked Vince if he knew the when and where of the thing. He said sorry, he didn’t. Just one of the things plucked from Google. He just dug that it was Prez. Others liked that it was Prez too. Prez! they said. The President! Imagine that….you’ve been dead for more than half a century and people see your picture and say, simply, Prez! A nickname of a nickname transcending generations.
But it’s such a sad, haunting shot: Beautiful and sad. It looked to me to be near the end.
I dug around the web for a while, looking for answers. Turns out the photo is by Dennis Stock from a single volume collection entitled Jazz Street. You can find it but it’ll cost you, it’s a rare one. Stock was one of those post-war photographers, that New York City feel, film noir, far too early in the morning. It seemed a harder time then, at least in the cities, far from the suburbs, and photography bore that out, black and whites of blacks and whites wreathed in smoke, thinking, listening, worrying, angry. Mr. Stock shot all these jazz pics in the late 50’s, from 1957 onward. Prez died in ’59, and looked decidedly less frail in the Sound of Jazz in 1957 (playing that perfect solo for Billie Holiday) than he does here, so this is probably closer to the end, maybe 1959. He was suffering from cirrhosis (as you can plainly tell here). I heard that he lived in a flat across from one of the jazz clubs (the Vanguard?) and rarely emerged, essentially drinking himself to death. His last few official recordings from this time sound a little frail, but they still swing. I’ve got a couple live things, board recordings I think, that sound sloppy drunk, though I like them anyway. He did a couple gigs here and there those last couple years, but wasn’t getting out of his room much. Drink, illness, maybe mental illness, maybe all three. He made a last stand in Paris for a couple weeks in late ’59, nearly drinking himself to death in the process and probably breaking a lot of jazz lover’s hearts with that sound still coming out of that body. Dexter Gordon seems to nail that as Dale Turner in Round Midnight. Lester Young returned to NYC and did finally drink himself to death a couple days later. He was forty nine years old. They buried him somewhere in Brooklyn. It must have been one helluva funeral. Everybody would have been there, telling stories, remembering better times. Mingus wrote “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” soon afterward. A ridiculous hat, a beautiful tune. You can’t see the hat in this picture. You can’t hear the saxophone, either, but you can imagine it. You look, and if you know Lester Young’s music, your mind fills in the sound for you. It fills that whole room, a thin little man, a bed, bare walls and all that saxophone. A black and white photo and the lightest, most gorgeous tone you’ve ever heard. Perfection.
(Lester Young takes his solo about two minutes in. Within two years, both he and Billie Holiday were gone.)