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2/12/11

My "interview" with Lester Young



In 1958 I was a staff producer/writer at WCAU Radio, a major Philadelphia station with an illustrious history that since has gone from CBS to NBC. At WCAU, which was celebrating its 35th anniversary back then, I caught the tail end of old-time radio, the kind that continued on TV for a while—with cameras added. They gave me two live audience shows: one aired every weekday at noon and had a dead giveaway title, "Hi Neighbor!", the other was the slightly more elaborate but equally horrendous "Surprise Party". I recently found a tape of the latter, which I may one day post a sample from, but it is hopelessly passé and my script was deliberately corny. The host was Ed Harvey, who at that time was quite a popular figure in Philly, and we featured a musical trio, two vocalists (male and female), a resonant announcer with perfect pronunciation, and a guest star, usually some Hollywood idol plugging a new movie. Our audience ate it up, they were mostly ladies with time on their hands, who came for the gratis entertainment and prizes. Each received a bag of sample products, and while that alone would have lured them there, I also had a more substantial carrot to dangle: a refrigerator, stove, or other major appliance. They gave me a budget for give-aways and I could spend it any way I wanted to. 

We had what we called the "regulars," women who never missed a show and raised a fuss if someone dared to occupying "their" seat. Frankly, I couldn't stand the regulars and I confess that there were times when I cheated them by rigging prizes. Each seat had a number with a corresponding ticket in a large bowl, so a drawing determined the week's winner. If I spotted new faces in the audience (tourists sometimes came to the station), I might call out their seat number instead of the one drawn. When the big prize was an all-expenses-paid New Year's Eve for two in Paris, I picked out a young couple to win it. I know it was dishonest and unfair to the regulars, but...

As you can imagine, doing these programs was thoroughly dissatisfying, so I managed to talk the Program Director into letting me also do a weekly one hour jazz show, "Accent on Jazz".  I wrote and produced it, our deep-throated announcer delivered it, and each week focused on a different artist or subject. Because the show was of a documentary nature, I began conducting interviews with visiting jazz people and extracting from them sound bites for the show. My own voice was not for the air, so the whole idea was to get my guests to say something quotable that could be used in a variety of contexts. 

I am offering this detail to explain why the "interview" with Lester Young is so painfully awkward and why I am asking really dumb questions to which I already knew the answers. Were it not for the extraordinary fact that Lester Young—a great player who truly took the tenor sax and the music itself in a new direction—only left behind two known recorded interviews, this tape would have remained unpublished. As it is, transcripts have appeared in books by Martin Williams, Stanley Dance, and Lewis Porter, and the tape is reproduced in a boxed Verve set (The Complete Lester Young Studio Sessions), all with my permission.

Lester Young had recently been hospitalized and he looked frail on August 24, 1958, when he came to the WCAU studios on Philadelphia's City Line. On February 6, 1959, he was in Paris, where he gave his second extant interview to Francis Postif. He recorded his final session during the first week of March, but took ill and returned to New York City. On March 15, 1959,  six and a half months after we sat down at WCAU, Lester died in his room at the Alvin, a hotel across the street from Birdland that had become his "home."