Looking at Lester

There are several, often conflicted, ways of looking at Lester Young, the American tenor player who was born, one of six children, in Woodville, Mississippi, in 1909, and who died, a crumpled, sick man, in March 1959.

One comes from the poet, William Matthews, in an interview with Dave Johnson, originally published in the  High Plains Literary Review in 1995.

Young was the Donald Barthelme of saxophone storytellers. The work is elliptical, funny, smart, blithe surfaced, and endlessly sad.

Another, quite opposite, comes from another tenor saxophonist, Coleman Hawkins -tonally Young’s opposite, broad and hustling, where Young was leaner and less assertive, the two of them vying for prominence in the 40s & 50s.

That Lester Young, how does he get away with it? He’s stoned half the time, he’s always late, and he can’t play.

Planted myself pretty firmly in the Matthews camp [though I can stand a good amount of Hawk, too] I’ve always listened to quite a bit of Lester – 14 CDs worth at a quick count – and so it’s no surprise comes across as a favourite of Charlie Resnick, also,

He makes a first, fleeting appearance in book one of the series, Lonely Hearts, the first paragraph of chapter four.

The sandwich was tuna fish and egg mayonnaise with some small slices of pickled gherkin and a crumbling of blue cheese; the mayonnaise kept dripping over the edges of the bread and down on to his fingers so that Dizzy twisted and stretched from his lap in order to lick it off. Billie Holiday and Lester Young were doing it through the headphones, making love to music without ever holding hands. Resnick couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that he had lied to Skelton, wondering why.

After that, it’s chapter nine of the second book, Rough Treatment, in which Resnick refers to a photograph taken by the great photographer, Herman Leonard in 1956, three years before Lester’s death,

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Lester Young in France, 1956: Photo, Herman Leonard

Anyone in possession of a copy of Rough Treatment and keen (or sad) enough to want to check, will find a number of changes from the original; some of these have been made over the years, usually ahead of a reading – pencilled marginalia, underlinings and crossings-out – some were made an hour or so ago. A piece of work is (almost) never finished.

Miles met Resnick the instant his feet hit the pavement; the cat had recognised the sound of the car’s engine from the end of the street and come running. Now he made his welcoming cry from the irregular stones atop the wall, strutting, tail hoisted high as he presented, turn upon turn, his fine backside. Resnick reached up a hand and stroked the smooth fur of the cat’s head, behind and below the ear.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s get something to eat.”

Once indoors, the other cats came running: Pepper, Dizzy and Bud. Resnick forked cat food from a tin into four bowls, green, blue, yellow, red, then added a shower of dried heaven-knows-what to each. Good, he’d once been told, for their teeth. There had been the usual mish-mash of junk mail inside the front door. From it he withdrew a single white envelope, card-shaped, and slid it between the containers for flour and sugar. The remainder he dropped into the bin. Next, he ground beans ready for coffee and, that done, felt relaxed enough to remove his coat, loosen his already loose tie, unfasten and ease off his shoes. In the living room he selected some Lester Young from the shelf and switched the stereo on low. Sides the tenor man had cut with Johnny Guarnieri in New York City, three days past Christmas ’43 and just shy of New Year. Back when everything must have still seemed possible: the future shining and plump like a fat, silver apple.

“I Never Knew”.

“Sometimes I’m Happy”.

Back in the kitchen Resnick lifted Dizzy away from Bud’s bowl before slicing bread, dark rye with caraway. He scooped the contents from a tin of sardines in soya oil, sliced a small onion and spread the rings across the fish; there was a large enough piece of feta cheese to be worth crumbling over the top. “Tried to get hold of you last night,” Jack Skelton had said earlier, the superintendent barely breaking his stride on his way back to his office. “Time you got yourself an answerphone, Charlie. One that works.”

Resnick stopped to listen as Lester bounced his way through “Just You, Just Me”, the first chorus almost straight, a trio of those trademark honks marking his place near the end of the middle eight, each perfectly placed, perfectly spaced, rivets driven in a perfect line. An intake of breath, just audible, smooth and quick over the brushes against Sid Catlett’s snare, and then, with relaxed confidence and the ease of a man with perfect trust in both fingers and mind, he made from that same sequence another song, another tune, tied to the first and utterly his own.

What are these arms for?

What are these charms for?

Use your imagination.

The reason Resnick didn’t get an answerphone: how else to keep bad news at bay? The messages that you didn’t want to hear.

He remembered a photograph of Lester Young taken by in 1956. Herman Leonard. Lester is in a recording studio, holding his horn, not playing. The suit he is wearing, even for those days’ fashions, seems overlarge, as though, perhaps, he has shrunk within it. His head is down, his cheeks have sunk in on his jaw; whatever he is looking at in those eyes, soft, brown, is not there in the room. His left hand holds the shelf with which he will cover the mouthpiece, as if, maybe, he is thinking he will slip it into place, not play again. It is possible that the veins in his oesophagus have already ruptured and he is bleeding slowly inside.

The coffee would be ready. In the kitchen Resnick picked up the envelope, trying to work out how long it had been since he had seen that writing. How many years? He wanted to tear it, two and four and six and eight, all the multiples until it was like confetti. He left it where it was.

Back in the other room, he balanced the cup of coffee on the broad arm of the chair. Lifted Bud with one hand and set him in his lap. The first take of “I Never Knew” ended abruptly; some saxophone, a piano phrase unfinished. Lester is standing there, tenor close to his mouth, but now he is looking away. As if something has slipped suddenly through that door in 1943, unbidden, out of time. A premonition. A ghost.

It doesn’t end there. Much of the writing about Lester Young made its way, sometimes barely changed, into the poem “Ghost of a Chance”, which can be found in Out of Silence: New & Selected Poems (Smith/Doorstop, 2014).

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Old Coppers Never Die …

… with any luck, they live on into an easeful retirement … Look at Charlie Resnick, for instance, in the final scene of my dramatisation of Darkness, Darkness, which was produced at Nottingham Playhouse last October … The scene is the chapel garden following the funeral of a young woman who went missing during the Miners’ Strike: after a conversation with another officer who is leaving the force and moving away, Resnick moves downstage and addresses the audience.

RESNICK : Difficult things, endings. Goodbyes. Trying to find the right thing to say, the right thing to do.

Barry Hardwick earlier, in the chapel, stumbling over his last few words, tears blinding his eyes. Any anger, resentment there’d been between himself and Jenny, set aside. Maybe some day them as stood either side of the picket line’ll feel the same … and maybe not. Some things too big, happen, to ever forget.

For me now, it’s going to be a matter of going on from day to day. Taking small pleasures while I can. A decent cup of coffee. Saturdays at Meadow Lane. A glass of Scotch. Charlie Parker. Lester Young. (BEAT) There’s this CD I saw in the window of Music Inn. Thelonious Monk in Amsterdam. I might stroll up there later and take a listen.

THE SOUND OF JAZZ PIANO, SLIGHTLY DISCORDANT, RISES UP …

What was it Lynn said? That bloke who plays piano as if he had no arms? Anyone who can play like that without hands – got to be worth a listen, eh?

… AS RESNICK WALKS OFF STAGE AND THE LIGHTS SLOWLY FADE.

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Didn’t think about killing him off, then? someone asked, after reading the novel on which  the play was based. Well, yes. But never for more than the odd moment; didn’t have the heart.

And, of course, for Charlie there’s another life, still happily continuing. A life on the internet: e-books. A life in translation. Darkness, Darkness itself was published in French by Rivages as Ténèbres, Ténèbres in 2015 …

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…and in German as Unter Tage, in a fine edition from Ars Vivendi in 2016.

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And now Donmay Publishing of Taiwan are to publish all 12 Resnick novels in Chinese, beginning with Lonely Hearts, which first saw the light of day in 1989, and finishing with Cold in Hand and Darkness, Darkness in 2022. I hope I’m around to see them.

The cover design for the first in the series arrived today for my approval and what could I say, other than I think it is beautiful. Original and beautiful.

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“Lonely Hearts”: Resnick at the Beginning

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A quick check on AbeBooks.com suggests that copies of the Viking Press, 1979, first edition of Lonely Hearts, in fine to very fine condition, signed, can be snapped up for between $350 and $450. Whereas, anyone wishing to read the same novel on kindle, can do so, from today until June 26th, for a mere £1.99, thanks to Amazon’s Start a New Series promotion.

You pays your money, as the saying goes …

One of the questions I used to get asked quite regularly in those far off days when my publishers used to send me out on tour, my American publisher Henry Holt especially, was did I always think Lonely Hearts was going to be the first of a series? The answer being, well, yes and no. Yes, in that most of my formative pulp days had been spent working on series so it was what I was used to. [Even the novelisation of Herbie Rides Again sprouted Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo.] And no, in that it had been hard enough to get this one book published, how much harder was it going to be for a bunch of them? Also, I should add on the plus side, the two most obvious [to me] and relevant inspirations for the novel were both television series, the long-running Hill St. Blues and my own relatively short-lived Hard Cases, which was, in most respects, Hill St. relocated to Nottingham and centred around the probation service rather than the police.

Which sort of takes me to a second frequently posed question: who, if anyone, is the character of Resnick based upon? To which the response used to be, he’s a lot like Captain Frank Furillo from Hill St. Blues, but dressed like Peter Falk in Columbo. A more specific model, following the Peter Falk example, would be the wonderfully fallible, hard drinking and sentimental Sgt. Valnikov, as played by Robert Foxworth in Harold Becker’s film The Black Marble, based on Joseph Wambaugh’s novel of the same name.

Like Furillo, I saw him initially as a kind of middle-management copper, holding together, through a mixture of firmness and inspiration, a fairly disparate group of younger officers. As the series developed, however, Resnick stepped out increasingly front and centre, in part due to the fact that I was increasingly enjoying writing about him, and in part down to the positive response to him from readers.

But here’s a little taste of Charlie as he initially appears at the beginning of chapter two …

Standing under the shower, Resnick massaged shampoo into his hair as vigorously as he dared: eyes closed tight, face tilted upwards, he lowered the temperature of the water until it reached minimum. When he looked into the mirror, his breath came back to him a mixture of German beer and sweet pickled gherkins. He was the usual eight pounds over on the scales. Cats swayed around his bare legs, slid under his feet as he pulled on his dark grey trousers, dark grey socks.

And this is the first impression of him from the social worker, Rachel Chaplin, with whom he becomes involved …

He was an overweight man in his early forties, whose narrow eyes were bagged and tired, and who couldn’t find the time to drop his tie off at the cleaners.

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Charlie Resnick’s Beginnings

A week ago now, as part of the Derby Book Festival, I was at Mickleover Library, taking an amble through the beginnings of the Charlie Resnick series, beginning with Lonely Hearts and finishing, as it did last year, with Darkness, Darkness. Along with answering questions as well as I could – and there were a good many – I read from both of those books, starting with Charlie’s first ever appearance, one of the cats sitting on his head as awakes, and ending with his attendance at the funeral of a former miner, both friend and one time foe.

Beginning to end, 1989 to 2014, and, for Charlie, on the surface anyway, not a great deal seemed to have changed. At the end, he’s not so very different to how he began …

He was an overweight man in his early forties, whose narrow eyes were bagged and tired, and who couldn’t find the time to drop his tie off at the cleaners.

… just older.

If only to remind me of those far off days when, as a teacher, I would ask whoever was sitting at the end of a row, to pass along the handouts to their colleagues, I did the same here – the handout at attempt to show the principle influences that went into Resnick’s creation.

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Social Realism to the right, Police Procedurals to the left …

Any questions on a postcard – or the contemporary equivalent.

On the Road Again …

… as Willie Nelson would say. First up, a trip close to the heart of the East Midlands, otherwise known as Derby, on Monday, 1st June, when I have the honour and pleasure of taking part in the first event of the Derby Book Festival. The venue is Mickleover Library, the time 2.00pm, and I shall be talking about the Charlie Resnick series – how it began and why it’s finishing – as well as reading from the first of the novels, Lonely Hearts, and the last, Darkness, Darkness.

More details here … http://www.derbybookfestival.co.uk

And then on Friday, 5th June, and closer to home, I’m the guest reader at the monthly meeting of Ware Poets in Hertfordshire. I had the pleasure of reading there on a previous occasion – some 25 years ago – and it’s nice to have been invited back.

Venue details: Ware Arts Centre, Kibes Lane, Ware, SG12 7ED.