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).
With civil unrest erupting across the middle east and bitter battle lines being drawn in Wisconsin and other Republican dominated states’ over the rights of people to collectivize in order to further a common cause, this title feels relevant. This blog-site is a place where local opinions about Jazz can be voiced but that is not why I chose the term ‘Jazz Local 32′. A ‘Local‘ is the term unions in America use when they refer to their branches. These musicians union ‘locals’ are an integral part Jazz history and they have often been at the forefront of civil rights actions. Jazz has been deeply concerned with social justice struggles since its inception and especially in the bitter battles to overcome racism. These struggles are often reflected in the music. Billy Holiday witnessed the lynching and burning of fellow African-Americans as she toured the deep south and later at the Cafe Society Club she sang ‘Strange Fruit‘ in order to bring home these unspeakable horrors. This heart wrenching song once heard will never be forgotten, because the strange fruit are the charred rotting bodies twisting in the wind. John Coltrane marched with Martin Luther King and later wrote profoundly moving tunes like ‘Alabama’, which touch the depths of the listeners soul. Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and many more took on the segregationist bigots and their collective struggle is part of Jazz DNA. A larger than life but somewhat controversial figure in this battle was John Petrillo; a one time trumpet player who eventually became president of the American Musicians union.
‘Petrillo became president of the Chicago Local 10 of the musician’s union in 1922, and was president of the American Federation of Musicians from 1940 to 1958.He continued being the prime force in the Union for another decade; in the 1960s he was head of the Union’s “Civil Rights Division”, which saw to the desegregation of the local unions and the venues where musicians played.
Petrillo dominated the union with absolute authority. His most famous actions were banning all commercial recordings by union members from 1942–1944 and again in 1948 to pressure record companies to give better royalty deals to musicians;these were called the Petrillo Bans. (Wikipedia)