Lester in Love: Portrait of Lester Young and Billie Holiday
Material: Oil on canvas
I’d been studying the microphone for a dozen years, and I suddenly saw what I’d been doing wrong. I’d been singing too loud. One night I was listening to a record by Lester Young, the horn player, and it came to me. Relax, just relax. It’s going to be all right. – Marvin Gaye
In this painting I explore a successful “musical romance”, which are rarely romances in a traditional sense, but can be just as passionate when they work. In musical (or other artistic) romances, the energy between the two parties squares itself so their combined result is far in excess of the sum of their individual talents. That club is legendary: Marvin Gaye & Tammy Terrill, Mimi & Richard Farina, Sonny & Cher, Lennon & McCartney (bromance), Prince & himself, The Mamas and the Papas, and numerous others. The phenomenon does not stretch to encompass all collaborations. The efforts of the Travelling Wilburies, for instance, exceed in quality none of its band members individual efforts.
In the case of Pres and Lady Day (Lester Young and Billie Holiday), though they did love one another, the romance was purely creative and ended whenever the music did, as both parties suffered through disfunctions and were bugled to Jesus way before their time. They both drank themselves to death, at 49 and 44. Lester Young served in the Jim Crow army in WW2 and was traumatized by the experience. Psychologically, he was never the same. God Bless the Child.
Some of their art found its way into my portrait of them with “Pennies from Heaven” pouring in from four vanishing points and creating “Polka Dots and Moonbeams”. (These are all songs of theirs.) “My Funny Valentine” is a broken heart, tilted to one side. “Lester Leaps In” and lines and colors plow through the painting somehow as if in an improvised leap of faith. I toy with scale, and perspective and feigned double exposure (as I often do in other paintings) to add to the composition some jangle and deliberate contradiction. Or not.