I came home from Broadway a little while ago and was too wired to go to bed, so I turned on the TV, started channel-surfing, and suddenly found myself watching a snippet from The Sound of Jazz, the famous 1957 show still widely (and rightly) regarded as the finest jazz program ever telecast. Ben Webster was playing a slow blues in F, with Gerry Mulligan nodding in the background, and as the camera panned to Billie Holiday, I realized that the song was “Fine and Mellow” and that the next face I saw would be Lester Young, sick unto death. Sure enough, he stood up, raised his tenor saxophone to his lips and blew one heartbreaking chorus of the blues, spare and fragile and a little bit flat. As he played, the director switched back to Holiday, her face aglow with memories of a time when she and her musical soulmate were at the peak of their powers, long before life ground them under its unforgiving heel. The chorus ended, the screen faded to black, and all at once I was watching a commercial for a product I didn’t want or need.
How strange it is to watch TV in the information age, skipping from channel to channel in search of momentary diversion, mostly settling for dross but sometimes stumbling across a fleeting image so simple and true that it makes you catch your breath. I wonder how many people happened to see Lester and Billie at the same moment I did, and how many knew who and what they were seeing. Perhaps I was the only person in the world who saw that flickering black-and-white picture and knew it was a kinescope of The Sound of Jazz. Perhaps there were a dozen of us, or a hundred, or ten thousand. Perhaps one of my fellow viewers will visit “About Last Night” today and read these words, and know he wasn’t alone.
UPDATE: Doug Ramsey writes:
In 1992, I toured in Germany and recently liberated