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My Favorite Jazz Holiday Story: Lester Young's Christmas Comeback
In a dim, windowless upstairs room on 13th Street in DC, a sax legend of the 1930s delivers a masterpiece in his final days
Everybody has their favorite holiday story. Some people opt for Love Actually or It’s a Wonderful Life, while others seek end-of-year catharsis in Die Hard or Bad Santa.
Who am I to judge?
But I’m a jazz fan, so I want to tell you about Lester Young’s last great album. It was a record that wasn’t even supposed to happen.
This takes place in December 1956.
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The story of Lester Young’s last great album starts in an unexpected way.
It begins with a pianist named Bill Potts—a name even most serious jazz fans won’t recognize. Potts was a workaday musician, bouncing around low-level gigs in the Washington, D.C. area over a period of many years.
His biggest break came when United Artists hired him to make a big band recording of George Gershwin’s music—but the draw was Gershwin, not Potts. His name wasn’t even put on the cover, and the album is forgotten nowadays. As far as I can tell, most of what Potts recorded under his own name (not much) is out-of-print, at least in legal editions.
There are thousands of musicians like Bill Potts in every generation, tickling the ivories at cocktail lounges and restaurants, getting occasional gigs at actual jazz clubs, but more often giving lessons and grabbing whatever opportunities come their way. Potts’s most persistent job was teaching music theory and the student band at Montgomery College in Maryland—where he worked for sixteen years.
Back in 1956, Potts was playing six nights a week at a place called Olivia Davis’s Patio Lounge in D.C. If you haven’t heard of Olivia Davis or her Patio Lounge, don’t feel bad. Like many venues, it came and went—and hardly left a trace.
There wasn’t even a patio at the Patio Lounge. The lounge itself was a dim, windowless upstairs room in an old building on 13th Street NW. This was hardly a choice gig, even for low level operator like Potts. “It was the worst piano in the world,” he later recalled. “It was awful.”
Potts, for his part, was working a day gig as a technician at a recording studio. He didn’t expect to earn a living from his piano skills. “There were lots of pianists that played better than I did,” he later admitted. He just wanted to make music and pick up some spare cash.
But then, in the closing days of the year, something remarkable happened.
Olivia Davis told Bill that she wanted to talk to his trio about a change in the music line-up at the lounge. The holiday season was always slow, so they probably feared she would cut back on live music.
Instead she had hatched another scheme.
“Well, gentlemen,” she said, “it’s so near Christmas I’m not going to spend a lot of money. So we hired a guy named Lester Young.”
This was amazing news—at least for Bill Potts and his colleagues, bassist Norman Williams and drummer Jim Lucht. Lester Young was one of their musical heroes—he was the innovator who had invented a cooler, more streamlined approach to jazz back in the 1930s. Sure, he had fallen on hard times, due to poor health and changing musical tastes. But for those who knew, Young was a legend.
Billie Holiday had recognized that early on—it’s why she had given Young the nickname Pres. “I always felt he was the greatest,” she later explained, “so his name had to be the greatest. I started calling him the President.” Young responded by dubbing Holiday with her own special nickname, Lady Day. And that’s still how jazz fans refer to them so many decades later: Pres and Lady Day.
Olivia Davis, the lounge owner, probably had little idea of this. She just wanted to try something different to bring in clientele during a slow stretch. She could get this Young fellow for six nights, but to save money she wouldn’t book a whole band. Young would come on his own, and play with the house trio.
Potts brought something more than his fair-to-middling keyboard skills to the gig, namely recording equipment. Because of his day job at U.S. Recording, he had access to some nifty technology—and he hauled it out to the Patio Lounge to capture his performances with Young. His stash included two Magnerecorders, three mics, mixing equipment, and stacks of reel-to-reel tape.
This was quite a setup just to record a bootleg. But Potts’s expectations were probably modest, mainly to preserve his encounter with a waning sax star. He certainly had no idea he would record a jazz masterpiece.
That’s because everyone agreed that Lester Young wasn’t playing anywhere near his peak level in these final years of his life. What was wrong with him? Almost anything and everything, depending on who you asked.
Doctors might tell you he suffered from alcoholism, cirrhosis of the liver, malnutrition, maybe even syphilis. Psychologists detected deeper disorders—the military psychiatrist who examined Young during his disastrous army service declared: “This man is a constitutional psychopath.” Fans and music critics had other explanations for his downward slide, pointing to his shyness, or racism, or financial problems, or just the heavy burden of representing the counterculture in a society that preferred conformity.
Take your pick. Young had plenty of reasons for his decline. Nobody disputed it, and most arguments focused instead on the question of when it had started. Some pointed to his military service in World War II, which ended with a dishonorable discharge in 1945. “The army just took all his spirit,” declared fellow musician Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison. Others claim that Young’s peak period ended even earlier, when he left Count Basie in 1940. I’m a more devoted fan than most, so I will insist that Young occasionally shined on later sessions, well into the 1950s, but it’s hard to deny that the last fifteen years of his life produced uneven and sometimes subpar music.
Certainly no one expected him to make a major musical statement in 1956, just 27 months before his death—and least of all playing with a pickup band on a forgettable out-of-town gig. But that’s exactly what happened. And it was apparent from opening night, Monday, December 3, 1956.
“We knew on the first tune,” Potts later recalled. “It was heaven.”
Why would Lester Young play so well in this low-key setting?
Perhaps it’s because Young himself was low-key, almost to an extreme. His sense of coolness was more than just a way of playing the horn—it was a self-defense mechanism in the face of an uncool world not made for gentle souls like Lester Young.
By any measure, he was the least macho tenor sax star in the history of jazz. He called everybody Lady, not just Billie Holiday, and regardless of gender. I’ve described him elsewhere as the first jazz metrosexual. That sounds like a clever quip to some people, but its a fairly accurate assessment.
Sure, there were stories of Lester Young winning heated sax battles on the bandstand, and he could be formidable in those settings. But I’ve heard other tales of him floating so effortlessly over the beat that Count Basie had to crack the whip on the rest of the band. If everybody started playing like Lester, the entire Count Basie Orchestra might drift off into an impressionistic haze unsuitable for any swing ensemble, least of all the hottest dance band out of Kansas City.
No matter what your norm was, Lester Young typically operated two standard deviations outside of it. That was his milieu.
In any event, Lester Young felt at home with the Bill Potts Trio at the Patio Lounge. The band could tell that both onstage and off. “I can honestly say that never in my life have I met a more sincere, understanding, considerate, kind and sweet man,” Potts later recalled. “He was such a nice man, with a great sense of humor, and never said anything unkind about anyone.”
Adding to Young’s comfort level, the trio knew the songs he liked to play, in the keys he preferred. And they treated him with the deference and consideration a jazz legend deserves—but so rarely receives. The whole setting was the exact opposite of what Young had experienced on those countless Jazz at the Philharmonic tours that helped pay his bills in the postwar years—concert hall events that deliberately tried to create an atmosphere of combat and one-upmanship. At the Patio Lounge, Lester Young had nothing to prove, and could just enjoy making music.
And that’s what comes across in track after track, all preserved on Bill Potts’s stacks of reel-to-reel tape. Lester Young isn’t trying to show off, or defeat another sax player in horn-to-horn battle, or even create important music. He’s just relaxed and having fun playing some favorite songs with three nice young guys who treated him like a genuine hero of the tenor sax.
That was their Christmas gift to him, and he reciprocated with his horn each night during the holiday booking.
Young certainly was aware of the recording equipment, but he didn’t expect any of this music to get released commercially. Young knew that producer Norman Granz, who had the saxophonist under contract, would never allow any of this bootleg stuff to appear on record. (He was almost right—it took decades before the D.C. tracks saw commercial release, and even then they got issued by Granz’s Pablo label.)
If Young had any lingering doubts about the wisdom of agreeing to a live recording, Potts addressed them by purchasing the largest bottle of brandy he could find. He gave it to Young with a card that read: “We thank you for the pleasure of working with the greatest saxophone player in the world.”
Lester opened the bottle immediately, took a few sips. Then he announced that he had no objections to all that recording equipment on the bandstand. Case closed.
Except for us. We are still blessed to have this music—it’s the holiday gift that keeps on giving, season after season. Young demonstrates, on track after track, that even in this period of supposed decline, he was still capable of extreme creativity and effortless musicality.
This was hardly his last performance, and there was even a remarkable televised solo, all too short, broadcast on CBS the following year. But the D.C. engagement is genuinely his last moment of greatness and pure beauty on a leader date. Eventually five albums of this music would get released, but Young wasn’t around to hear the words of praise.
Even so, he must have sensed that something special had happened. Because after the six nights ended, Young stayed on in D.C. He even paid a surprise visit to Bill Potts at his recording studio day gig. The pianist was dumbfounded to see the jazz legend show up unannounced at U.S. Recording Co.—Potts didn’t even think Young knew where he worked during the day.
“Prez, what in the world are you doing here?” Potts asked.
“I just wanted to be with you, Billy,” Young replied. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Young was even thinking about making a real studio record with the three musicians who had been such convivial companions during that week on the road.
But there would be no studio album. And a week later, there wasn’t even an evening gig for Bill Potts. Olivia Davis not only fired the band, but closed her Patio Lounge. Lester Young might have recorded a masterpiece at her nightspot, but he still wasn’t a big enough draw to pay the bills.
Even so, I take some consolation in knowing that Lester Young, at this famous last stand, did manage to bring the house down. He always was a tough act to follow.
The end result isn’t quite Die Hard or Bad Santa. But unlike those more frantic December traditions, Lester Young’s DC tracks make for a sweet and cool alternative playlist during the holidays. It’s what I’m listening to this year. And if you get tired of “Jingle Bell Rock” or “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” you might want to do the same.