About to sing, she was perched on a high stool, facing a semi-circle of musicians who were all standing. Except one, Lester Young. Prez (as Billie had named him long before) was sick. He had been so weak during the run-throughs that most of his solos during a previous segment with Basie’s band had been split between Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins. Now Prez was slumped in a chair, his eyes averted from Billie, whom he had not talked to for some time. Once they had been very close, and I didn’t know what discord had kept them estranged for so long, but throughout the rehearsals they had ignored each other.
Lady Day (as Prez had named her) began to sing, and in the darkened control room, the producer, director and the rest of the technicians leaned forward. The song, which Billie had written, was one of the few blues in her repertory. This time she was using it not to speak so much of trouble, but rather of the bittersweet triumph of having survived—with some kicks along the way. Despite the myth that, toward the end, Billie invariably sounded like a cracked husk of what she had been before, on this afternoon, she was in full control of the tart, penetrating, sinuously swinging instrument that was her voice.
It was time for Prez’s solo. Somehow he managed to stand up, and then he blew the sparest, purest blues chorus I have ever heard. Billie, smiling, nodding to the beat, looked into Prez’s eyes and he into hers. She was looking back, with the gentlest of regrets, at their past. Prez was remembering too. Whatever had blighted their relationship was forgotten in the communion of the music. Sitting in the control room, I felt tears, and saw tears on the faces of the others there, including Herridge.