Holiday's death was famously chronicled in Frank O'Hara's poem, "The Day Lady Died," in which O'Hara recalls a moment at the Five Spot when:
She whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing
In O'Hara's poem, Mal Waldron is the conduit, and as his two-year-association with Billie Holiday drew to a close, Waldron was thinking, musically, about that that meant.
Both Left Alone and Impressions are unique as tribute albums in that they don't, on the surface, have very much to with the artist they're paying tribute to. Left Alone has one song, "You Don;t Know What Love Is," associated with Holiday. Impressions has three songs that were written for vocalists, but only one of them, "All the Way," was recorded by her, on her strings album with Ry Ellis, but surely that song would fit more comfortably onto a Frank Sinatra tribute album.
Trumpeter Webster Young recorded a Holiday tribute album that was all songs she had made famous, but Waldron's approach really makes as much sense. Jazz is jazz. Once Young has played the melody of "Don't Explain," he's off into his own improvisation, and the version quickly becomes his.
Waldron is thinking about what he's learned from his two years with Holiday, and in fact one track of Left Alone is Teddy Charles interviewing Waldron about precisely that.
One thing, Waldron stresses in the interview, is that he learned from Holiday to listen to the words. This is advice passed down to the younger musician from an older one, with Holiday as the conduit: Lester Young said that he always had the words to a song in his mind when he played. I've always wondered if this could also be retrofitted--did Lester think of King Pleasure's lyrics to "Jumpin' With Symphony Sid," written to his solo, when he played it?
A bit of transient whimsy, but interesting to consider in that Waldron was one of the best composers of his era, and as such played a lot of original material that had no words. But I have to believe that Holiday's influence was strong here, too: the way that she listened to, and sang, and created musical patterns for words.
Three of the pieces on Impressions are a suite: "Les Champs Elysées," "C'est Formidable," and "Ciao," inspired by a European tour that he and Holiday took together. You can actually hear the spectre of lyrics in "Ciao," the frenzied conversations, trying to get everything in before departing for America. Waldron would return to Europe to live, after losing a few years to a heroin overdose triggering a near-total mental breakdown, and he would often say in interviews that if Holiday had been able to make the break to expatriate living, it could have added years to her life.
The other non-original songs that Waldron includes on Impressions are "With a Song in Heart" by Rodgers and Hart, and "You Stepped Out of a Dream" by Nacio Herb Brown and Gus Kahn. "All About Us" is credited to Elaine Waldron, Mal's wife. She's received composer credit on his work before, and it may be some sort of publishing thing.
When John Coltrane came back to New York from Philadelphia, clean and sober and ready to record again, one of the players he brought with him was drummer Albert "Tootie" Heath, who stayed in the Big Apple and returns to Prestige here.
As of this blog entry, "Tootie" is still with us, and he talked about jazz then and now in a recent interview:
I come from an era where...“jazz” was not considered a music that was sophisticated. It was always happening in some place where everybody was drunk, the room was full of smoke, and it wasn’t on the concert stage.I started this project partly on a whim, partly out of the realization that this was an important era in American culture, and the idea that I could maybe get a sense of the totality of it through looking at one record label. Prestige because I thought it had been a little overlooked in jazz history, and because it was such an important part of my early jazz record collecting.
Once jazz was presented on the concert stage and introduced to festivals all over the world, the people that play it don’t necessarily represent people from my era anymore because we’ve died out.
I consider myself one of those people who came from the area where the blues was important and the RnB was important, and church gospel music was important. It’s not a part of what people call “jazz” anymore. People ignore that, they are not intellectual forms of music. That is not taught at the universities, they don’t teach you nothing about no blues. How to play an 8 bar or 12 bar blues, they don’t teach you that at the universities.
They teach you about sequences and how to go from this kind of change to that kind of change. We didn’t even know what that was, most of us.
Duke Ellington said, “one foot in the future, and one foot in blues would make the music unique.”
Bob Weinstock said that he sold the label in 1971 in part because the jazz he loved was no longer the jazz that was being made. Choosing Prestige meant starting to look at jazz in 1949, which is good because there's no right date, and this way the choice was made for me.
The music of these two decades was made by musicians born in the teens, in the 20s, the 30s, the 40s--musicians who matured and made their mark in the heart of the American Century in Music, that unparalleled artistic flourishing that came from the blues and developed in so many astounding ways. Maybe jazz, building from " the area where the blues was important and the RnB was important, and church gospel music was important," is the fullest expression of that music. Not the best, because there is no best, but the fullest, and the music that so many who started in more basic forms aspired to.
There are lots of reasons why the American Century wound down, or maybe just one reason. Because things do. No one is composing baroque music any more, or writing Elizabethan drama. That doesn't make the interpretive art of a Yo-Yo Ma or an Ian McKellen any less wonderful. But maybe "Tootie" has his finger on it.
There's another explanation, and that is that I'm wrong. That the Duke is right, and we still have one foot in the blues, and the other in the future. That "Tootie" got old, and I got old, and it's natural for us to live in the past.
Impressions was released on New Jazz. In spite of being hailed at the time as Waldron's best work to date, it seems to have never made it over, in whole or part, to a Prestige release.
Listening to Prestige Vol. 2, 1954-1956 is here! You can order your signed copy or copies through the link above.
Richards will strike a nerve with all of us who were privileged to have
lived thru the beginnings of bebop, and with those who have since
fallen under the spell of this American phenomenon…a one-of-a-kind
reference book, that will surely take its place in the history of this
important reference book of all the Prestige recordings during the time
period. Furthermore, Each song chosen is a brilliant representation of
the artist which leaves the listener free to explore further. The
stories behind the making of each track are incredibly informative and
give a glimpse deeper into the artists at work.