Yolande Bavan joined Dave Lambert and Jon Hendricks in May 1962 after "illness" forced Annie Ross to quit the high-energy singing group during a European tour. The reason for Ross' departure was never made clear and varies depending on the book you read.
Regardless, Ross had been an essential member of the swinging group. Her silky voice was savvy and shrewd, and her image was flirty and high-fashion, all of which played well at clubs and on album covers.
When Ross was sidelined, Lambert and Hendricks were cast adrift—with enormous financial obligations to satisfy a long list of live engagements. They had to find a suitable replacement for Ross, someone who not only could sing the complex vocal parts but also would be visually special.
Ultimately, Lambert and Hendricks chose Yolande Bavan, and the group—as Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan—toured extensively between May 1962 and early 1965, recording three live albums for RCA.
How did Yolande Bavan become so well known so quickly among American jazz musicians and how did she become a fixture on the London jazz scene in so short a period of time?
In Part 1 of my interview with Yolande, she spoke about her early years in her native Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon); her interest in jazz; her first singing break; her tour of Australia, Japan and Korea at age 16; and her decision to sail for London at age 19 in 1957 to take her career to the next level.
In Part 2 below, she talks about her good fortune in London, her eight days in late 1958 with Billie Holiday in Paris, and how she limited Billie's drinking during a London TV appearance in early 1959:
"Before I left Sri Lanka for London in 1957, pianist Graeme Bell wrote to Humphrey Lyttelton, the Dixieland trumpeter, recommending me. When I arrived in London, I called Humphrey. We met, and he introduced me to Lyn Dutton, his agent and manager. Dutton got me singing dates in the London clubs, including at Humphrey’s own club.
At the time I loved Bud Powell and was mad about Miles Davis, so I was always hanging around at the more progressive jazz clubs, where I saw Art Blakey, Count Basie, Dave Brubeck, and so many others.
On weekends, I'd travel to Paris to visit my closest friend, Marpessa Dawn. Marpessa was a wonderful actress. She had just finished filming Black Orpheus, which, when it came out in 1959, introduced Bossa Nova music to the world. Marpessa wasn’t really from Brazil. She was part Filipino, part African-American and part Native-American—and she was from Pittsburgh. She was absolutely gorgeous.
On one of those trips to Paris in November 1958, Marpessa said we should go eat at Gaby and Haynes, a soul food restaurant where all the American jazz musicians ate. So we went. That night, at the table across the way, was Billie Holiday, her pianist Mal Waldron, and clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow. They were appearing at the Mars Club.
Billie was looking at me for a long time—I was wearing a sari—and finally sent Mal over to our table. 'Miss Holiday would like you to come over and join her.' I was in awe and so shy then. I told him, 'No, no, I can’t, I can’t, I really can’t.'
Mal laughed and went back to Billie’s table. He must have told her I was painfully shy. Because as Billie was leaving, she passed my table and said to me, 'If I had a daughter, I’d like her to be just like you.'
The next night I was singing at the Blue Note Cafe with a trio led by the guitarist Jimmy Gourley. When I looked across the room, there was Billie sitting at the bar. She knew everyone there, and everyone knew her. When I came off the stage, she waved for me to come over. In that voice of hers, she said, 'Hi. You’d better start really singing. Be here tomorrow at the club at 2 pm. I’m going to teach you a few songs.'
So the next day I was at the club. It was just me, Billie and Mal. Billie taught me Solitude and Don’t Explain. She would have me sing and then she would correct me. She urged me to make my singing more resonant. 'Always tell the truth,' she said. Since I was just 19 at the time, I reached for the pain of my parents’ divorce to get at the emotion I needed.
Billie and I just goofed around that day—compared to what would follow. While she was in Paris, Billie wanted me to spend the days with her. So I did.
I enjoyed being with her so much. She was like a mother to me. She’d tell me to come by her hotel—The Crystal—and we’d just sit around and relax. She’d read Superman comic books, we’d talk, she’d sleep.
Billie was strict with me and practically adopted me during that period. 'You’re going to come to America some day,' she said, 'and I’ll buy you 28 flavors of ice cream. We have a place called Howard Johnson's.' I was young and had never heard of 28 flavors of ice cream or Howard Johnson's. It sounded so exciting.
Billie also was very protective. 'If I ever hear that you’ve smoked pot or anything like that, I’ll come and slap you upside your head,' she said. I had no idea why people took drugs. I was so naïve—not because I was naïve. Drugs just wasn’t in my realm or experience.
Also, Billie's stories of her hard life affected me and made me realize that drugs could easily lead to similar hard experiences that I didn’t want. Billie told me terrible stories of abuse at the hands of her husband at the time—Louis McKay. She also told me things she did to him that weren't very nice either.
When she said he had kicked her chihuahua into an empty fireplace, that was the last straw. I just said to her, 'My god, this man is a monster.' She said, 'Yes he is, babe, yes he is.'
During those days in November, Billie was paranoid—and for good reason. People had been trying to plant things on her to arrest her for drug use. She’d tell me, 'If you see a stranger coming in the direction of my room, just walk away as if you don’t know me.' Billie also would go into the bathroom for long periods. At the time, I had no idea why she was in there for so long.
Toward the end of Billie's stay, she made me my first American Thanksgiving dinner with turkey and everything. I don’t know how she got a turkey in Paris but she did. One thing she made that I didn’t like much was sweat potatoes with marshmallows. Billie loved it.
When Billie left for the States, I returned to London. BBC executives who had seen me sing on a variety show asked me to audition for a play. The play was set in Morocco, and I played a girl dressed as a boy who came to France to kill everyone. I think it was called Dr. Kabul.
That Christmas I heard from Billie. She called to talk and said she had no money. She sounded like she was in bad shape. So I tucked 10 quid—about $20—into a holiday card and sent it to her apartment on West 84th St. in New York. Years later someone had found the card in her apartment and showed it to me. I nearly broke down in tears.
In February 1959, Billie came to London to do a BBC TV show called Chelsea at 9. By then I was close friends with a lot of the London jazz community. I was singing in a much more modern, hip style and hanging out with Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes. I also knew Max Jones, the jazz writer for Melody Maker and a good friend of Billie’s.
When Billie arrived in London, she called me from the airport and said, 'Where the hell are you?' I knew she was coming to London but I didn’t’ know she was going to call me from the airport or that she expected me to be there.
The next day Billie was doing the TV show. So Max picked me up at 7 am. and then we picked up Billie. We were at the BBC TV studio from 9 in the morning to 9 at night for rehearsals and the airing. I was with her backstage the entire time. It was a bit difficult. She had been having a hard time in America. There was no work because she didn’t have a cabaret license and she had no money.
And she wasn’t well. She was getting thinner, more drawn and sadder. I spent the day with Billie in the dressing room, just watching over her. She couldn’t do any drugs. That would have been difficult. But she was drinking vodka and orange juice. I knew I had to stop her from going too far.
I knew Billie wouldn’t drink unless there was ice. So while she rehearsed, I melted the ice under the hot water tap. When she returned, I told her there was no more ice. She’d get cross with me.
She was very paranoid at the time, and she would become terribly fearful if I left the dressing room for a second. If I wanted to leave to get a coffee or something, she’d say 'Can’t they bring it here.' I just wanted to get out of there for a little bit to breathe. Whenever I would go to the bathroom Billie would follow and stand there.
I think she was aware of how scared she was becoming and felt I was the only one she could trust. If Max Jones had stayed with her backstage all day, she would have done the same thing with him.
When the TV show was over, we went to Humphrey Lyttelton’s club. There were photographers all over the place, and they took this picture of us together that became famous. Billie was wearing a gorgeous dress and looking at me with such love and admiration. When I look at that photo today, it breaks my heart. It was February 1959. Billie would die a short time later—in July.
Looking back at all of those events now, I see Billie as a mother figure. But in many ways I was really the mother. I had to take care of her and follow her around. At the time I didn’t fully appreciate who she was. Now of course, it’s all clear to me. Whatever Billie was, she was always loving and kind."
In Part 3 of my interview tomorrow, Yolande talks for the first time about the events leading up to her joining Lambert and Hendricks. Most of what's already been written is wrong, she says. She also talks about the trio's grueling tour schedule, and how she managed to memorize so many of the group's tricky songs so quickly.
JazzWax video clips To see Billie Holiday perform on TV in London in February 1959 during the BBC's Chelsea at 9 show (Yolande Bavan was in her dressing room—melting ice), go here.
If you missed the clip I posted yesterday of Yolande Bavan singing in 1963 with Dave Lambert and Jon Hendricks, click here to see it. Pay particular attention to Yolande's hands as she sings her solo on Horace Silver's Come On Home.
JazzWax pix: To see the picture of Yolande and Billie together taken right after the Chelsea at 9 TV show, click here. Notice that Billie is wearing the same dress she wore earlier on TV.
JazzWax note: If you want to hear one of Mal Waldron's last albums before his death in 2002, go here to Michael McCaw's blog. Waldron was Billie's pianist during the last two years of her life. Scroll down until you reach the MediaMaster tool that lets you listen to the album for free.