The Way You Look Tonight – Teddy Wilson & Billie Holiday
Someday, when I’m awfully low, when the world is cold
I will feel a glow just thinking of you
and the way you look tonight
While I was studying law in London in the late 1970s I was also improving my musical education. The record shops of Soho in particular were a ten-minute walk from Fitzroy Street where I lived, and bulged with unknown treasure that I saved up for, dipped into and splurged on. Like a child in a sweet shop I wanted to sample everything. I felt ignorant about music, like I had huge holes in my knowledge – particularly classical, anything not in English or jazz.
One of the first ever jazz records I bought was a white double LP from Columbia Records called Masters of Jazz – Billie Holiday Volume 1 : 1933 – 1936. It felt like an LP that may have some answers. I also bought a Duke Ellington LP in a similar package – one of a series. I imagined, no doubt that the other volumes would follow. I thought jazz might be ‘a bit difficult’ – but that couldn’t have been further from the truth and I couldn’t stop playing both records. Totally by luck I had hit bullseye first shot – the Billie Holiday / Teddy Wilson songs are both eternal and perfect, simple and complex, they reveal more and more layers of joy with each listen – and still do some 40 years later. Over the years of loving these songs – now collected on another “complete” Columbia series which are for me the pinnacle of 20th century pop – I’ve come to really adore the piano playing of Teddy Wilson.
Billie Holiday was 18 when she recorded her first sides, with Benny Goodman – the 2 songs from 1933 are the first on this LP. Then she did a recording with Duke Ellington in 1935 called Symphony In Black which I wrote about in My Pop Life #34. I don’t know what she did from 18-20, aside from live dates, I guess the pop vocal world was pretty competitive back then and Billie was already seen particularly by producer and early champion John Hammond as a jazz stylist rather than a pop singer. Nevertheless in 1935 she cut her first sides with swing maestro Teddy Wilson for the Brunswick label and had a hit with What A Little Moonlight Can Do. The resulting five years produced the incredible music which I stumbled onto in Soho back when I was a callow youth. Extraordinary music. Each song a glittering diamond of the art.
Ben Webster, Billie Holiday, Allen Reuss, Lester Young, Teddy Wilson kneeling NYC 1936
Jazz standards they’re called now, some of them have become part of The Great American Songbook, others are pop songs of the day played by an ace swing band under the twinkle of Teddy Wilson. The players were legendary themselves : Lester Young on the tenor sax, whom Billie Holiday called Prez. He in turn anointed her Lady Day. On this song – Ben Webster on the tenor, another top player. The mighty Gene Krupa on drums from the Benny Goodman Trio, where Teddy Wilson had been one of the first black players in a prominent integrated band back in the early 1930s.
All of the numbers follow the same architectural pattern, which nowadays would be considered musical suicide. The vocal doesn’t come in for at least 2 minutes usually. (Hmm perhaps resembling House Music from the 1980s). First, a shuffle is established and the melody is played by clarinet, tenor saxophone, trumpet or piano. A full verse is played, followed by an improvised verse, followed by more of the same. All the lead instruments get a turn, then finally, around halfway through the song, Billie sings. The result is simply breathtaking. You hear the greatest players of the day riffing over the sweetest songs, reigned in by the rhythm section and the melody and producing some of the most sublime music known to man – then Billie Holiday takes it home. Always behind the beat, sometimes thrillingly in-between the beats, singing a song of her own inside the song. She is another jazz instrumentalist, using her voice and the words as her tune. Very few singers can pull this off – this level of structural awareness, to stretch the song beyond it’s confines to another level of syncopation and genius.
Many listeners like the God Bless The Child side of Billie, the later material on Verve from the 40s when she probably had a cigarette dangling from her mouth and was singing weary blues and jazz with great heart-wrenching and pitiful emotion and of course – it’s better than great. She wrote the extraordinary Strange Fruit in 1939, her initial unwillingness to sing it apparently coming from memories of her father’s death. Her talent was huge, her life was tragic. She poured it all into the music until she simply couldn’t be bothered, wrecked with heroin, drink and everything else and died in destitution from liver failure in July 1959.
I prefer these early sides from the late thirties to the bluesy broken Billie. Musical people at the height of their game, playing exquisite pop music on disc. Carefree beautiful music, written by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein, Johnny Mercer, Jerome Kern, Sammy Cahn.
But check out the piano of Teddy Wilson. Syncopation and a loose tightness, rolling phrases, moments of strange determination and bloody-mindedness, lyrical beauty. It reminds me of Artur Rubinstein playing Chopin (see My Pop Life #9) and there can be no higher praise from me. I’d love to hear Teddy Wilson playing Chopin. Purists may scoff (oh go on, please) but examples abound of the jazz/classical crossover, from Aretha Franklin singing Nessun Dorma when Pavarotti fell ill in 1988, and Benny Goodman playing the Mozart Clarinet Concerto in 1949. Different disciplines, sure, but same instrument. Anyway, Teddy does it for me as a pianist. Something very quality going on. He became known as the ‘Marxist Mozart’ in New York thanks to his leftist sympathies, people don’t like to distinguish between shades of red do they, if you’re vaguely left you’re a commie. For example Teddy chaired the Artist’s Committe to Elect Benjamin J. Davis, black Communist leader who was elected to the NY City Council in 1943.
This song was written by Jerome Kern with lyrics by Dorothy Fields, originally sung by Fred Astaire in the film Swing Time, and winning the Oscar for best original song in 1936. It’s a corker of a tune. Similar in theme to Don’t Ever Change from the 1960s. A wonky piano backflip takes us into the clarinet melody over a brisk shuffle, played straight just once, followed by eight bars of improvisation before the trumpet takes us through the second verse and we slide gloriously back to the piano genius of Wilson before Billie finally, reluctantly, joins them, singing her song inside theirs. All these sides from these sessions – mainly cut in New York, but also recorded in Chicago and Los Angeles – are for me the very stuff of joy itself.
These days it is possible to listen to Billie Holiday in rehearsal, phrasing, trying stuff out, ordering drinks, flexing her vocal instrument, arguing. Too much information? For some people yes. They prefer to receive the art in finished condition, these overheard bootlegs of conversations feel intrusive, reductive. Others, including me, want everything. When I started collecting Beatles bootlegs, I relished every overheard word, every joke and quip, every false start and breakdown. It was like gold dust.
Billie Holiday : A female jazz artist in a male world : 1939
This song was recorded on October 21st 1936. Astaire had already recorded it, and many others would follow – Parker, Sinatra, Art Blakey, Ferry, Coltrane, Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee….
No particular memory, just a lifetime’s pleasure.