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Orson Welles and Lady Day

Pierre Briancon coverTwo of the most interesting jazz-related books of recent years have an author in common. He is Pierre Briançon, a French journalist who lives in London and works as a senior financial commentator for the Reuters wire service. The first book, San Quentin Jazz Band, written in French and published by Editions Grasset in 2008, tells the story of some of the musicians who ended up in the eponymous California prison in the late 1950s and early 1960s, on a variety of drug-related charges. They included the saxophonists Frank Morgan and Earl Anderza, the trumpeters Dupree Bolton and Nathaniel Meeks, and the pianist Jimmy Bunn; it’s a pretty amazing and important piece of work, shining a light into the corners of the lives of some of the talented men who fell victim to what amounted to a plague.

While planning the book, Briançon came across the piece I’d written about the hitherto mysterious Bolton for Granta in 2000. (With the aid of a private investigator, I’d established for the first time that he was actually dead — and unearthed his birth and death certificates, plus other pieces of evidence from his life, including photographs from an old girlfriend.) Pierre and I met and shared information, and I was quickly impressed by his seriousness and willingness to do the necessary digging. During his research in the prison’s archives he uncovered a great deal of new information. It still surprises and disappoints me that no one has seen fit to publish an English translation of this remarkable work, written with an acute sensitivity to the social forces of the time.

His new book, written in English, is called Romance in the Dark. A novel, it is an imagined account of the relationship between Billie Holiday and Orson Welles, one that is mentioned by Holiday in her highly unreliable autobiography and appears to have begun in 1941. Briançon starts his narrative inside the head of the trumpeter Shad Collins, who is driving a New York City taxi cab one day in 1972 when his memories are triggered both by a chance remark from a passenger and the sight of the poster for the lamentable Lady Sings the Blues. He reminisces about witnessing that initial encounter between the singer and the director, a few days after he and Lester Young had recorded a handful of sides with Holiday, including “Romance in the Dark”. The meeting occurred at the Chicken Coop club in Harlem, at a party following the premiere of Welles’s production, with his Mercury Theatre company, of Richard Wright’s Native Son, which starred the Chicken Coop’s owner, the actor Canada Lee.

Here’s a paragraph from that opening chapter, to give you the flavour:

Billie was something else. Shad loved her, as a best friend. Used to call him Lester junior, even though she didn’t call the other Lester Lester. Prez was what she always called him. But Shad was born Lester Rallington Collins after all, didn’t even remember where the Shad came from except that Lester – Prez – had been the first to call him that, when he’d joined the Basie band and they became buddies. Had stuck ever since. Prez, that’s a man who would have done anything for Billie. Shad never knew whether they’d had a fling, never dared to ask. They weren’t the kind of people you’d question about it. Probably not. Once, as the band was chilling after a concert at Kelly’s Stables, one of the boys had tried to make a joke about it. Prez was cleaning his horn, shot him a glance you’d never forget. Silenced the dude right there and then.

Briançon brings other witnesses back to life to the page, including the philanthropist Caresse Crosby, the actor Everett Sloane, the dancer Ruby Helena, Billie’s husband Jimmy Monroe, the screenwriter Cy Endfield, the gofer Shorty Chirillo and the pianist Joe Springer. Their voices are heard in the form of interviews, diaries, unpublished autobiographical manuscripts — and, in the case of J. Edgar Hoover, in the form of FBI files on Welles’s professional and personal relationships with black people and his possible communist sympathies.

The book ends with the very noirish scene of the drummer Roy Harte (later a co-founder of Pacific Jazz Records in Los Angeles) scoring cocaine for Holiday in a Havana bar in 1943. Nineteen years old, befriended by the singer in New York, he is now accompanying her and her friend Greta Knox, an actress, around the clubs of the Cuban capital. Here, as everywhere, the level of historical and circumstantial detail is again impressive, contributing to the pungent period flavour and the inconclusive but nevertheless compelling story. By the time I’d read a few chapters, I’d completely stopped worrying about what was real and what was invented.

Briançon is looking for an English publisher. Meanwhile he’s put it up on Amazon in the form of a Kindle edition, which will cost you £2.99. The text is as it came off his keyboard, with the occasional little glitch and minor error that an editor would sort out (for instance, Richard Wright appears at the first mention as Robert Wright). But you can make allowances for that, as I was happy to do, in order to enjoy this valuable addition to the genre that includes Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter and Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful. I think it’s something special.

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7 Comments Post a comment
  1. thanks for the book tip today Richard – two of my favourite ever books appear to be joined by a new one… i shall have to join the kindle revolution first tho..hope all is well – loving the blog best Jason

    June 6, 2014
  2. Your piece sent me straight back to the Bolton chapter in “Long Distance Call”, and to my old copy of “Katanga”. Quite a story, and I love how this music can inspire such loyalty.
    I know how difficult it is to get jazz related material published having failed with “Impressions”, my collection of drawings of jazz musos, so I can’t suggest who might pay attention to ” Romance in the Dark”.
    Two thoughts: Lovely Curtis Amy soprano, and Dupree reminds me slightly of Jimmy Deuchar.

    June 6, 2014
  3. Dupree Bolton! Katanga is a firm favourite…and his playing on ‘The Fox’ is just one of the reasons it’s a classic, for me…(another being Elmo Hope’s ‘Mirror Mind Rose’ – almost an Andrew Hill ballad before the event!). San Quentin Jazz Band though…what an intriguing concept. Thinking of Elmo Hope, one not unlike ‘Sounds from Rikers Island’…

    June 6, 2014
  4. Coming Through Slaughter – what a book! I’ll definitely check this out.

    June 6, 2014
  5. Nice articles as always Richard.

    As an aside, speaking of the fictional life of Orson Wells, Richard Linklater produced an overlooked little gem of a movie “Me and Orson Wells” in 2008 based on the great actor’s production of “Julius Caesar” at the Mercury Theatre in 1937. It stars a pre-Homeland Claire Danes together with an charismatic Christian McKay as Orson Wells.

    It’s probably not the greatest movie ever, but at £2.50 online, well worth the price of admission. I hope you enjoy it.

    June 6, 2014
  6. Fred Shuster #

    Did not know about “San Quentin Jazz Band.” What a great idea for a book. Why, oh, why has it not been translated?

    June 10, 2014
  7. John Evans #

    ‘San Quentin Jazz Band’ — a 366-page book with lots of names throughout — sadly lacks a much needed index.

    June 12, 2014

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