On Dec. 8, 1957, CBS producer Robert Herridge assembled many of the great pioneers of jazz to perform together on live television, as part of "The Sound of Jazz." One of the most memorable performances of the night was Billie Holiday's "Fine and Mellow."
By 1957, Holiday had experienced her share of trouble with drugs and hard living, and her voice was not what it once had been. Yet that day, on the set of "The Sound of Jazz," it was clear that she was still a singer with an impeccable sense of timing and a style that could convey both joy and suffering. In this interview, Nat Hentoff, music writer and part of the production team that organized "The Sound of Jazz," recalls the highlight of the broadcast.
The song she sang that, to most people (including me), was the climax of the show was one of the few songs that she herself ever wrote: "Fine and Mellow." It's a basic 12-bar blues. It may be the only blues song she ever wrote, although the language of the blues, the texture of the blues, the cry of the blues was always part of what she did.
Billie Holiday didn't actually write songs. She thought of a melody, and she hummed it, and then her piano player or somebody else would orchestrate it — or arrange it, rather. And as for lyrics, she would write those, but then she'd consult with somebody like Arthur Herzog, who was the co-writer on "Strange Fruit," and he would sort of shape it into a more singable form.
So the theme of the lyrics of "Fine and Mellow" was infidelity, and Billie knew a lot about that. I don't know how you put this. She had a poor choice of men, and that was one of the reasons, I think, that she could sing this song and a lot of other songs that had to do with dreams and aspirations and fantasies and romance when they turned bad. She was an expert at that.
What made this the climax of the show was this: She and Lester Young — she had given him his nickname, Prez, and he was the guy who called her Lady Day, which other people came to call her. They had been very close for a long time, but then they stopped being close. They paid very little attention to each other while we were rehearsing the show.
Lester was not feeling well. He was supposed to be in the big-band sequence, but he couldn't make it. I told him, "Look, in the Billie section," which was a small group. She was sitting on a stool surrounded by just a few musicians. I said, "You know, you don't have to just sit down and play."
When it came to his solo, in the middle of "Fine and Mellow," Lester stood up and he blew the purest blues I have ever heard.
Watching Billie and Lester interact, she was watching him with her eyes with a slight smile, and it looked as if she and Lester were remembering other times, better times. And this is true — it sounds corny — in the control room, Herridge, the producer, had tears in his eyes. So did the engineer. So did I. It was just extraordinarily moving. I think for all the times she sang this song, on records and in night clubs, this was the performance that I think meant the most to her, and it came through on "The Sound of Jazz."
After it was all over, she was so pleased with how it went — it was live, by the way — she came over and kissed me. And that's worth more to me than the Congressional Medal of Honor.