One Poem for My Spiritual Godfather, Lester Young

Upon approaching someone he loved, Lester Young greeted them with: “How are your feelings”?

Nat Hentoff produced the attached clip. Lester is the second soloist. He named Billie not Lady but Duchess. He called Billie’s mother, Sadie, Lady, but Billie preferred that moniker, and took it.

Billie called Lester Prez, short for President, because he was, to her, the best. And part of his greatness is his extreme humility, his body folding into itself, a leaf barely balancing his own extreme, muted feelings.

Billie was the butch to his femme. And then he’d be the butch to her femme. I know it.

Count Basie called Billie William. See what I mean? When Billie died, Basie moaned, That poor girl. See what I mean?

Some of the men in this film Billie slept with, like Ben Webster, the first soloist. It was the way she made friends. Sometimes she held on to them. And then not. And then they’d make music in a film together. The musician’s life: itinerant emotionalism.

Net Hentoff told me that when they shot this film, Billie showed up with a number of gowns. No, no, lady, he said. It’s supposed to be like a jam session. And so she put this outfit on.

He surrounded her with horns because her voice was a horn, a horn much beloved by other horn players.

Clearly, she would have been an extraordinary film star–holding back, kissing some Joe with open eyes, so “don’t care-ish,” in attitude, which is what the elders called her when she was a little girl. A Fosse creature before Fosse.

Owen Dodson told me that Billie used to call him Teach, because he was a professor.

I cannot watch this film without welling up with tears and desire. Collaboration: the ultimate dream. To be replaced by other moments. The penultimate dream.

Lester and language. When one or another of his cronies would invite him to dinner, Lester would ask: “Can madam burn?” meaning can she cook?

When Lester said he desired something, he said he had big eyes for it. “I had big eyes to be in Basie’s band.”

He loved language. You could do so many things with it. Change a mood. Like music. Bend it into something else. Because it was music.

Lester called the diminutive Pee Wee Marquette, the MC at Birdland, “Half a motherfucker.”

Lester said, once: “Due to the uncertainties [of this or that] we decided not to.”

Which is just about it, isn’t it?

Nat Hentoff told me that when they shot this film, Billie and Lester hadn’t been on speaking terms for some time. But when they made the music, they remembered.

I never said to Nat Hentoff: How could they forget?