Amongst Jazz fans this clip from a show called ‘The Sound of Jazz’ is legendary and I suspect that it could top the list of ‘best short Jazz films ever made’. While many will have seen this or already own a copy on DVD, it is a joy to be repeated over and again. The song ‘Fine & Mellow’, is a blues written by Billie Holiday and her studio band just happens to contain some of the best musicians of the era. In my view the film is dominated by Billie and ‘Pres’, but everyone here is note perfect. There is more feeling in this clip than a hundred others of a similar nature and perhaps that is what has elevated it to cult status.
Each solo is about telling a story within a few minutes; because this was the discipline that was imposed upon pre 1950’s recording artists. The 78 rpm recordings had limited space and certainly did not allow for John Coltrane like explorations of a theme. This ability to tell a story succinctly and well was cultivated by the era’s Jazz greats and no one told those sweet stories like ‘Pres’ (Lester Young), Ben Webster or ‘Bean’ (Colman Hawkins). Billie and ‘Pres’ had been extremely close for years, but for reasons never fully revealed they had fallen-out some time prior to this recording. During the recording Billie smilingly acknowledges the band members as they solo; obviously loving their improvisations. When ‘Pres’ plays though an expression of absolute love and appreciation is evident. This was a moment out of time that has delighted Jazz fans ever since.
Billie was to die tragically within a year or so of recording this and her rendition of this blues is an extremely poignant moment in Jazz history (as if she understood that her death was immanent). The curse of over indulgence in narcotics and booze cut a terrible swathe through the best and brightest of the jazz scene around this time.
The slurred introduction by Billie is genuine but possibly spliced into the film later (which was made in a 1950’s studio setting and unlikely to have included a stoned Billie intro). The band is: Ben Webster (ts), Lester Young (ts), Vic Dickerson (t), Gerry Mulligan (bs), Coleman Hawkins (ts), Roy Eldridge (t), Doc Cheatham (t), Danny Baker (g), Milt Hinton (b), Mal Waldren (p), Osie Johnson (d).