Lester Young, 1950

For a project connected with his Jazz At The Philharmonic operation, the impresario Norman Granz filmed Lester Young with trombonist Bill Harris, Pianist Hank Jones, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Buddy Rich. Although they bypass the melody, the piece is “Pennies From Heaven.” For decades, there has been speculation, but no proof, that because of technical audio requirements, they are lip-synching to a performance they previously recorded. That could account for the general amusement and for a couple of what seem to be slight deviations of the sound from the picture.

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  1. Joel Elkins says

    It’s called “playback”, not lip synching & it certainly seems they are performing to playback to these eyes.

  2. Jon Foley says

    I don’t believe it’s just speculation that they’re playing to a pre-recorded track. From the very first time I saw this clip, years ago, I knew it wasn’t recorded live. For only one example, watch Buddy Rich’s hands – they’re often not playing what’s being heard (and he’s probably smiling because they gave him that child-sized drum set to “play”). Also, although the sound is pretty good studio audio, no microphones are seen. A boom mike overhead would not have produced that closeup sound; there would have been noticeable room ambience.
    This quote is from the “Jazz On The Screen” section of the Library of Congress website:
    “Filmed to playback in the director’s studio in New York City in September 1950 with the unfortunate result that the end product is sadly out of synch”.
    And for proof, someone should just ask Hank Jones – I’m sure he remembers it well.

  3. says

    Well, it’s at least great to see them swinging people at work. I understand the producers wanted to be on the “safe” side with recording all in advance. It was common practice then, and it is still now; but it is of course “anti jazz” in my opinion.
    Jazz lives from the spontaneous moment, and so it is quite a torture to let improvisors “act” to what they had played probably an hour ago. This never will work out satisfactory. Anyway, it’s beautiful to watch these guys, even when out of synch. We have to deal with what we can get.

  4. Bruno Leicht says

    When Pres appeared on my radar (I was around 22), it was like scales falling from my … ears. The radio man, the late Dieter Zimmerle, from Süddeutscher Rundfunk (SDR, Stuttgart) played some of his most significant recordings, and he only had 30 minutes broadcasting time for his portrait of Lester Young. 30 minutes which changed my musical life. I pretty sure that it was an anniversary broadcast to Pres’ 35th obit in 1984.
    When I heard his solo on “Lady Be Good”, his beautiful backgrounds to Lady Day’s vocals, or his later, heartbreaking album “Laughing To Keep From Crying” (Mr. Zimmerle played “Gypsy In My Soul”), it was like a revelation for me. I give Pres the credits for my successful entrance exam at the Cologne Musikhochschule, because I learned from Lester’s playing that many notes or technical fireworks aren’t important. Telling a story, that is!