If it got soul, it doesn’t matter if it’s black or white.
It’s always an esteemed pleasure to discover someone new who has been around for a while. The stories about musicians and singers are often compelling, enlightening and tragic. The story of Lester Willis Young, better known as Prez, is no different.
Actor Leslie A. Jones does a remarkable job bringing Prez back to life. Like the saxophonist, he’s handsome, charming, styling in the latest fashion including a signature porkpie hat. Prez was the originator of hipster sayings like “cool” and “bread” and made it a long lasting trend. He speaks to a female journalist whom he affectionately calls “Lady Françoise” from a hotel room in Paris, France in 1959 before a performance later in the evening at the famed Blue Note club. As he gets ready for his performance, he obligingly answers the reporter’s rapid-fire questions. He doesn’t hold anything back.
Yes, he did enjoy working with his friend Billie Holiday. He refers to the “Strange Fruit” singer as his twin sister. In fact, she gave Young the nickname Prez. According to her, if Frank Sinatra can be Chairman of the Board then Young could be President. He returned the favor in naming her Lady Day, because of her grace, femininity, fire and dignity. The wearing of the gardenia was her idea and a legend was born. He took her death very hard even though, he vehemently cautioned her on shooting up heroine. They remained close until his death at age 49 on March 1959. Holiday passed four months later.
I learned the meaning of the blues right away.
Jim Crow was my teacher.
Prez continues to captivate the Lady Françoise with vivid stories of his on again/off again musical relationship with Count Basie, paying homage to drummer Joe Jones and fellow sax players Charlie “Bird” Parker and Henry “Buster” Smith also known as “The Professor” and singer Jimmy Rushing, dubbed as “Mr.Five by Five.”
Jones brings out the enthusiasm and passion when he re-tells his memories to the French reporter, who he also calls Peaches and Cream. However, when he recalls a memory of his painful childhood, he becomes sensitive almost too scared to reveal the truth for fear of being pitied. He does admit to leaving home at age 17 after he had enough of his father’s physical abuse. He speaks in jest o his horrendous time in the military.
He tried to escape from the draft but got caught. He escaped again and was caught again and sentenced to hard labor. One year further down South on a chain gang. He remembered the name of the son-of-a bitch, Lieutenant Humphries, who busted him. Like Prez said, “I rather defy than endure.” He was eventually dishonorably discharged.
Writer Willard Manus, writer of The Bleachers and The Deepest Hunger, concocts a simply complex individual with layers of tender and rough emotions trying to survive in a world that seems against him. Prez somehow manages to stay on top while his life-long friends burned out too quickly but left an indelible impression lasting past death. Manus captures the musician’s fighting duality with finesse and Jones delivers with poise.
Prez plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. at Chromolume Theatre until Sunday, February 28th, located at 5429 W. Washington Blvd., in Los Angeles. For ticket information, call (323) 510-2688 or log on to www.crtheatre.com