Danny Bank, 85, appeared on two key Billie Holiday dates—playing flute on the hauntingly lush Lady in Satin and baritone saxophone on Billie Holiday: Last Recording, her final session recorded just four months before her death. I spoke to Danny yesterday about the session, and he helped resolve a few questions I've always had about the date.
Billie's Last Recording is particularly painful to hear. So much so that many of my friends find it unlistenable. And in many ways they're right. Billie sounds frighteningly fragile—much more so than on Lady in Satin, which was recorded a year earlier. You almost feel ashamed to be listening to it given her near-death condition.
Yet Last Recording remains an essential document. Because anything recorded by Billie is important. And because her voice, while shattered after years of abuse, still tries to overcome the physical limitations of her body and winds up taking on a strange, gaunt, autumnal beauty.
In addition, the arrangements by Ray Ellis (who also led the shimmering Lady in Satin date) are fairly strong. The musicians assembled were all major players, and trumpeter "Sweets" Edison seems to be blowing especially strong to shoulder Billie along.
I own a crystal clear Japanese import of Last Recording and have always wondered why so many of the tracks sound unfinished, musically. All of You finds the great tenor saxophonist Al Cohn squeaking during a solo, which should have triggered an immediate re-take. Sometimes I'm Happy and When It's Sleepy Time Down South fade out in strange places. Clearly an engineer's save after the date was wrapped. And so on.
Danny Bank, who occupied one of the nine chairs on the third day of the recording session in March 1959, shed light on the agonizing date:
"Her last album was recorded over three days [March 3, 4 and 11 in in 1959.] The first two dates were done with horns and strings. I wasn't on those. On the last date Ray [Ellis] used just a small band.
I remember getting a call from Romeo Penque a day before the [March 11] session. Penque was a great musician. He could do it all—he played alto, tenor, clarinet, you name it. Penque was on the first two dates in March and was scheduled to do the third. But he was one of those guys that if another date paid $10 more, he’d go take it even though he was booked for the first one.
So I told Penque I'd take the session. Billie was one of my heroes. I had always heard stories about her. I admired her for Strange Fruit. That was a bold social statement at the time. Very courageous.
When I walked into the studio, I think it was in the morning, there she was. But Billie was so sick. She had no balance. They had to put a belt on her to hold her upright in the stool she sat on to record. I don’t know why she recorded that day. Maybe because the session was already booked and she needed the money.
I went over to her before we began. I said ‘Billie, hi, we have a mutual friend.’
'Who? she said.
‘Freddy the Freeloader,' I said. Now Freddy was a band boy. I met him when I was in Charlie Barnet’s band. Freddy ran all over town with my instruments, taking them to my recording sessions. He was one of my schleppers.
Billie looked up at me, paused for a few seconds, and smiled. ‘Yeah,' she said, 'Freddy. How about that. He's a good cook.’ Freddy used to cook for Billie. He really was a great chef.
Then we recorded four tracks. We didn't go overtime. We just played and Billie did the best she could.
But Billie was in really bad shape, and it got worse over the period we were recording. She had her nurse standing right next to her the entire time so she wouldn’t fall off that chair. Finally, after three hours, the nurse called it off with a wave of her hand. 'That's it,' she said."
So much for conductor Ray Ellis. And that's why the album sounds so rough. Billie could barely deliver the vocals and was physically shot. Whatever the engineer could capture was what the record company had to wax, regardless of Al Cohn's gaffe. When Billie's voice would break toward the end of songs while trying to holding notes, the engineer would create fade outs. And when Billie's nurse finally threw in the towel, the session was over. Period.
I, for one, would love to hear the complete masters from these dates, with Billie's false starts and her voice breaks near the end of songs and whatever banter occurred just off mike. This isn't morbid curiosity—it's merely a desire to hear the full extent of Lady Day's final outing, rough edges and all.
And yes, Freddy the Freeloader, Danny Bank's instrument schlepper, is indeed the same person Miles Davis named his song after on Kind of Blue. As Miles said in The Autobiography with Quincy Troupe: "That song was named after this black guy I knew who was always seeing what he could get from you free, and he was always around the jazz scene."
In March 1959, Billie fondly remembered Freddie before the start of her last recording date. A month later , Miles recorded Freddie Freeloader on Kind of Blue, which would turn out to be one of the most important jazz recordings of all time. Seems Freddie did alright.
Wax snap: To see a photo of Billie at this last recording session, go here. It was taken by Milt Hinton, who played bass on the date and was already an active photographer. Seems The Judge realized he was seeing something both horrible and beautiful at the same time and needed to capture it for posterity.
Wax tracks: Billie Holiday: Last Recording is out of print, but a 1990 CD is available used from sellers for around $16 or as an import for $33 (or less if purchased used). This isn't an essential recording but it is interesting to listen to nonetheless for the reasons I mentioned above. Amazon features both.
Wax clip: The song Bank referred to—Strange Fruit—was recorded by Billie for Commodore Records in 1939 and 1944 to condemn the lynching of African-Americans and the apparent toleration of the practice by local and national authorities. It's one of the first jazz protest songs. You can see and hear Billie sing it on a1959 TV show here.