As the closing credits start to roll at the end of Hale County This Morning This Evening, RaMell Ross’s brilliant documentary about black lives in rural Alabama, there’s a sudden shift of tone on the soundtrack, eight bars of bright, clear trumpet leading into the unmistakeable voice of Billie Holiday singing – what else? – Stars Fell on Alabama.
It’s the version Billie recorded in January, 1957 for Norman Granz and released on the Verve label. Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison is the trumpet player, with Ben Webster on tenor, Jimmy Rowles at the piano, Barney Kessel guitar, Red Mitchell bass and Alvin Stoller drums. I know it from a ten disc set which brings together the studio sessions recorded for Verve between 1952 and 1959, along with various live sessions from Carnegie Hall, the Newport Jazz Festival and several early concerts with Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic.
I can’t swear when I bought my copy, but I know full well when Charlie Resnick bought his, Christmas 1993. It says so in the sixth novel of the series, Cold Light, which was published in 1994.
Here’s the beginning of chapter 8 …
For Christmas, Resnick had bought himself The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve, a new edition of Dizzy Gillespie’s autobiography and The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, LP and Cassette. What he still had to acquire was a CD player.
But there he’d been, not so many days before, sauntering down from Canning Circus into town, sunshine, one of those clear blue winter skies, and glancing into the window of Arcade Records he had seen it. Amongst the Eric Clapton and the Elton John, a black box with the faintest picture of Billie on its front; ten CDs and a two-hundred-and-twenty-page booklet, seven hundred minutes of music, a numbered, limited edition, only sixteen thousand pressed worldwide.
Worldwide, Resnick had thought; only sixteen thousand worldwide. That didn’t seem an awful lot of copies. And here was one, staring up at him, and a bargain offer to boot. He had his cheque book, but not his cheque card. “It’s okay,” the owner had said, “I think we can trust you.” And knocked another five pounds off the price.
Resnick had spent much of the morning, between readying the duck for the oven, peeling the potatoes, cleaning round the bath, looking at it. Holding it in his hand. Billie Holiday on Verve. There is a photograph of her in the booklet, New York City, 1956; a woman early to middle-age, no glamour, one hand on her hip, none too patiently waiting, a working woman, c’mon now, let’s get this done. He closes his eyes and imagines her sniggering – Cheek to Cheek with Ben Webster, wasn’t that fifty-six? Do Nothing ‘Till You Hear From Me. We’ll Be Together Again. The number stamped on the back of Resnick’s set is 10961.
So much easier to look again and again at the booklet, slide those discs from their brown card covers, admire the reproductions of album sleeves in their special envelope, easier to do all this than take the few steps to the mantlepiece and the card that waits in its envelope, unopened. A post mark, smudged, that might say Devon, the unmistakable spikiness of his ex-wife’s hand.