“As Ever Your Lady Billie Holiday”: Love Letters from Prison

“Then, the way you always do, I met someone.”

This is how Billie Holiday tells it in Lady Sings the Blues, her 1956 memoir.

“He was a young boy, fresh up from the South—Alabama or Georgia. He played trumpet and his name was Joseph Luke Guy. He was new on the scene, just getting started as a musician. And he could be a big help to me.”

Joe Guy had come north to Harlem from Birmingham as a teenager, playing trumpet with the Rev. George Wilson Becton’s Gospel Feast Party, a jazz-fueled religious revival famous for its youthful band of “swinging apostles.” By the time he met Holiday he’d already been making his name as a forward-thinking, energetic jazz soloist. He was only five years Holiday’s junior, but the difference seemed greater: she was certainly more famous and was already wearier of the world. But Joe Guy was young and handsome and full of ideas, and his playing anticipated a new, modern era for jazz. He became Holiday’s trumpeter, her bandleader, her husband, and her drug runner.

HolidayJoeGuy
Joe Guy & Billie Holiday

Holiday and Guy met sometime in the early 1940s; a few years later, they were exchanging heartrending love letters from separate prison cells.

More on those letters in a minute. First, a little more about Guy.

Joe Guy appears in histories of jazz, when he appears at all, as a kind of footnote: at key moments in the music he pops up, horn in hand, then disappears. Dizzy Gillespie helped champion his career and borrowed from his playing. Miles Davis admired and learned from his solos. With Thelonious Monk and drummer Kenny Clarke, Guy belonged to the house band at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, the legendary nightspot whose late-night jam sessions laid down the groundwork for bop. You can hear Guy’s trumpet backing Coleman Hawkins on Hawkins’s seminal records, “Body and Soul” and “Stardust” and others; in his work with the Cootie Williams orchestra, you can hear him helping nudge the sound of swing into the future. He’s on Holiday’s records from 1945 and ’46, and for a while he led her touring band. The couple married, or said they did (they likely never got a license). And then he was gone.

Guy hasn’t fared well in the historical treatment of Holiday. In her biographies he’s often cast as villain, another bad man in a string of bad men, all more or less interchangeable. Ken Burns’s Jazz series narrates Holiday’s downfall in crisp prose and a portentous delivery, a series of short sentence-bursts suggesting a straightforward cause and effect. “In 1941,” the narration intones:

     … she married a sometime marijuana dealer named Jimmy Monroe and began smoking opium.

     Then she moved in with a good-looking trumpet player named Joe Guy.

     He was addicted to heroin.

     Soon she would be using it, too.

Really it’s not so cut and dry as that, and historians have quibbled over whose heroin habit came first. “He may have done things he shouldn’t,” Holiday herself once said to DownBeat magazine, “but I did them of my own accord too.… Joe didn’t make it any easier for me at times—but then I haven’t been any easy gal either.” One way or another, the couple was hooked, and their self destructions became wrapped up together. Under the influence, Guy’s playing became increasingly erratic, his reputation less and less reliable. Meanwhile, federal authorities were closing in on the couple. Jimmy Fletcher, a black narcotics agent, was assigned their case and closely monitored their movements (in the process he befriended, and very likely fell in love with, Holiday; what he considered his betrayal of her would haunt him for the rest of his life). The couple was creative in their evasion of the law, even recruiting into their service Holiday’s boxer, Mister. Fletcher later recalled that every day Joe Guy procured some new drugs from a connection in the city. Then he “walked the dog from way down on Morningside Drive up to 125th on Eighth and told the dog to go ahead. The dog would walk right in the Braddock Hotel … and the elevator operator was waiting for him.”

Mister would ride up the elevator, then walk down the hall to Billie’s door. Secured behind his collar was the day’s ounce of heroin.

Billie Joe Guy hairdresser
Joe Guy, Billie Holiday, and Holiday’s hairdresser (name unidentified)

Joe Guy gets half a chapter in my book, Doc, the life story of Alabama jazz man Frank “Doc” Adams, who played with Guy in the 1950s and very early ’60s. For my current book, a history of Birmingham jazz, I’m digging a little deeper into Guy’s story. And that brings me back to those letters.

In the spring of 1947, the feds finally caught up with Holiday and Guy, busting them for narcotics possession in their room in New  York’s Hotel Grampion. Holiday was sentenced to a year and a day in the Federal Reformatory for Women in Alderson, West Virginia, while Guy awaited his own trial in a Pennsylvania prison cell. The couple sent letters back and forth from their cells; in recent years two of Holiday’s letters have surfaced and sold in auctions (they brought in around $6,000 apiece). The letters offer a poignant look into the heart of one of American music’s most beloved, most tragic figures—and they suggest a more tender and complex relationship than most biographers have allowed Holiday and Guy.

It’s a shame we don’t have more of the exchange—if any of Guy’s letters have survived, I haven’t seen them—but Holiday’s two surviving letters are compelling, aching documents. The first is dated July 6, 1947, and begins, “Joe Darling … I have read your letter so Many times, I know it by heart.” Friends are helping Joe get access to money and a lawyer, it seems, and Holiday frets that there’s nothing she can do, herself: “I Wish to God I could do anything to help you,” she writes, “but as you know both My hands are tied.” She worries, too, about her own career–“Maybe My public won’t forget me after all,” she hopes, “but a year and a day is a long time”–but she takes some comfort in news from New York that her friends and fans still ask about her and play her records on the airwaves. The letter continues (I’ve left the original punctuation, capitalization, and spelling as Holiday wrote them):

all this makes me happy but then it leaves Me Very sad all I think about is you My Work and Will I ever get straight and get started again in a Way I’m glad Mamas dead because this Would Just about killed her Darling there was a Mag that came out called Holiday My picture was in it I cut it out to send to you so you don’t forget What I look like (smirk) Bobbys sister Janey send a small picture of Mister so you Will be able to at least look at your family oh I Wish I had a picture of you please tell Bama [trumpeter Carl “Bama” Warwick] or Jimmy [Joe’s brother Jimmy Guy] or somebody to get one and send it to Me oh Joe Sweetheart you know I love you so it hurts you are all I ever think about please Write Me a long letter as soon as you can I can’t Write your Mother and Dad as I can only Write a few people But tell them I love them also and if they Write to me I Will answer I love you love you Will never stop

As Ever Your
Billie Holiday.

A few days later, in a letter dated July 12, she writes, just before bed: “I am going to try so hard to dream of you,” and quickly admonishes: “Don’t laugh. Sometimes I am lucky and can.” The prison had screened a movie that night, Sister Kenny with Rosalind Russell: “It was a very good picture but it made me kind of sad thinking about the last show we seen together odd man out” (James Mason’s 1947 noir, Odd Man Out). Lights out cuts Holiday’s writing short, but the next night she picks up her pencil again:

Well darling its night again. After I got thru my work today I just couldn’t write. I cried for the first time. Oh darling I love you so much I am so sorry you have to stay there in Phila. It must be awfully hot. Yes baby I gained nine pounds and I am getting biger all the time gee you wont love me fat (smile) But you must look wonderful. Youer so tall and you needed some weight. So thank heavens for that and what ever happens at your trial sweetheart keep your chin up don’t let nothing get you down. It won’t be long before were together agian. My lights has been out every since I last saw you. But they will go on agian for us all over the world. Write to me Joe as soon as you can. Ill always love you as ever your Lady Billie Holiday.

In her own trial, Holiday had blamed Joe for her addiction. When his trial came up in September, her testimony now exonerated him. The drugs had all been hers, she said—Guy didn’t even know where they came from. The jury deliberated for an hour, and Guy was released. “Billie Holiday’s Mate Freed,” the headlines read: “Word From Blues Singer Would Have Landed Joe Guy in Pen.” But Billie had spared him.

The next March, Holiday returned to New York—she was released two months early, for good behavior—but her prison time, and her unshakable habit, haunted her career. As a felon, she was forbidden by New York law to work anywhere liquor was sold, a restriction that cut her off from the night clubs and cabarets that were a jazz singer’s lifeblood. Almost immediately, she was using heroin again.

Joe Guy, meanwhile, was gone. According to the New York Amsterdam News, “The guys on the street intimated that … Guy, who was exonerated of dope charges, had recently taken an apartment in the 200 block of 129th St., but nobody could quite agree on the exact house.” As far as Holiday’s biographers are concerned, Joe Guy’s story ends there, with a vanishing act no one seemed too much to mourn. In the words of one writer, Guy “permanently dropped out of music” and “died in obscurity”; according to another, he “faded back down South where he was born.” For most historians, Guy simply disappears from the stream of history, his brilliant future—widely predicted, less than a decade before—evaporated.

Guy wound up back in his hometown of Birmingham, playing local clubs and mentoring younger players, who he emphatically urged to keep away from dope. Sometimes, friends and admirers said, his original brilliance still came through in his solos, and local musicians revered his playing. But his personal demons never left him alone.

Billie Holiday died in New York in 1959, at the age of 44. Guy died two years later in Birmingham. It had been more than a decade since the world had passed him by. He was 41 years old.

Fig17 copy
Back in Birmingham. Joe Guy with Charles “Chuck” Clarke (saxophone), Mary Alice Clarke (piano), and Jesse Evans (vocals). Photo courtesy Roberta Lowe.

P. S. Earlier this week I announced a giveaway for my book Doc. (There are several good Joe Guy stories in it.) Thanks for all who entered the drawing by signing up to follow this blog, and congrats to phil-bond for the win. Hope you like it. Let me know.

Another P. S. What prompted me to write this post in the first place was a phone call, a few days ago, with Guy’s nephew Bernith, who lovingly recalls his uncle’s last days. I’m grateful for the added insight into Guy’s life, death, personality, and family, and I look forward to telling more of the story in the next book. Please stay tuned.

Meanwhile, here’s an interesting musical analysis of Guy’s career, including a complete, annotated discography.

The Magic Citizen

Today, an excerpt from my book Doc – and a chance to win a copy of the book’s new paperback edition. To win, submit your email address on this page to follow this blog. This Friday (4/26), I’ll put the new followers’ names into some kind of hat and randomly draw a winner. (If you’re impatient – or read this after Friday – feel free to go ahead and buy yourself a copy here or wherever else you buy your books.)

Doc tells the story of Frank “Doc” Adams (1928-2014), a beloved icon of Birmingham, Alabama’s historic jazz scene. In the early 1940s, the teenaged Adams belonged to Sonny Blount’s band, which was already pushing the bounds of local convention; a few years later, Blount would move to Chicago, become Sun Ra, and launch his Intergalactic Arkestra, creating a new kind of music for the cosmos. Adams joined Blount’s band after a brief fallout with Fess Whatley, leader of Birmingham’s preeminent dance orchestra, but after patching things up with Fess, he found himself playing in both bands. Whatley led the music program at Industrial High School, where Adams was a student, and he was notorious for his strict discipline and rigid approach to music. In Sonny Blount’s band, meanwhile, it was another culture entirely.

Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man is a work of oral history, drawn from two years of weekly interviews with Frank Adams. Even into his 80s, Adams was a consummate musician, teacher, and storyteller, and his memories of Sun Ra represent the only detailed firsthand accounts of that musician’s early years in Alabama’s “Magic City.” The following excerpt comes from Chapter Five, “Outer Space.”

… Blount’s band was real unique. Everybody in there couldn’t read music real well, but he could put them together: I admire Sonny for being able to mold his musicians together to do things that he did. His orchestra would consist of maybe three trombones or five, it didn’t make any difference — he wanted to know how you sounded and how you sounded. If two bass players showed up, they were both on the job: he’d have two. Some of the musicians might have complained, because they’d have to split the money more ways, but Sonny wanted to hear what each one of them could do: how it all sounded together.

As I said, he lived in this rickety old house, and his whole world was in that place. It was a wooden frame building. As far as we got, and anybody got, was the front room, and that was where he had his bed and where he rehearsed. I think he took his meals in there. We understand that he had a sister or somebody, but nobody ever saw anybody there in the house. He would always be there, and he had these records stacked about five feet off the ground, these 78 records, and he had his piano in there. I remember that the hallway was about to fall in — you could step down in a hole or something if you weren’t careful — and the furniture was in shoddy shape.

Always it was very crowded. Whenever we had a singer, after he set the drums up, the singer would have to be out in the hallway, and he would call that person in whenever they would do a vocal number. The saxophones would be up against the wall over here, and the trumpets would be somewhere back in there. But you didn’t think about it. There was never any talk about anything but the music. He had a wire tape recorder, and he had a shortwave radio — I don’t know how he got it — and he could get music out of New York, like from the Savoy. He would have all these wild players on there, like Don Stovall. They were playing bop before bop was even heard about. He’d listen at night to that, and he’d play that back for you. It was the craziest music, but he would say, “That man’s not crazy. You just aren’t able to understand it yet. He’s trying to tell you something, but you don’t know what to do. He’s just trying to tell you he’s free — okay? So listen at it.” And if you listened long enough, you’d get it.

He would say, “I was born with x-ray ears; I can hear all these things you humans can’t hear yet.”

He had people like Henry “Red” Allen on that transistor radio, and they would be playing the trumpets: they would be playing very differently than you would hear them play in a concert, in a ballroom, or even on a record. It was a wild thing, and they would be playing number after number after number.

Sometimes if there was a big band like Jimmy Lunceford or Benny Goodman, he would transcribe that off the radio; he’d copy his arrangements right off the radio. If a band would come to the Masonic Temple, I don’t care who it was — Duke Ellington — he’d put that little wire recorder down there, and in about two or three days, he’d have all those parts written down, by hand. Nobody knew how he could do that.

Of course, Professor Whatley called me back after reflecting on what he had done. So it wasn’t but a couple of weeks before I was playing with both Fess Whatley and Sun Ra. That gave me two bands — and there was a great difference between Fess Whatley’s band and this Sun Ra experience. I know that sometimes I would look at Whatley’s music, and I would compare it to Sun Ra’s. If a vocalist would be singing, Sonny’s background music would be much simpler to play, lots of whole notes and things. Professor Whatley would have bought and copied out arrangements that would have these cascading runs like the pros would play. On the “Swanee River,” you’d have maybe a sixteen-bar reed chorus — Sun Ra didn’t have that type of thing, but he’d play a lot of blues. He had a fellow named Teddy Smith who played saxophone — a natural. They would play this “Hootie Blues” that would go fifteen minutes. Teddy Smith would be out there playing, playing, swaying from side to side; the people would be hot and sweaty and perspiring, and he’d go on and on and on.

Sonny was very popular because he had these soloists, and if you got out in one of those public housing projects where he played, your three-minute record wouldn’t do. If you played Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” and had to stop after three minutes, like the record — those folks want to stay out there eight minutes, perspiring. That’s what they call dancing. Even a blues band like B. B. King: they could play what they recorded, but that’s not enough for dancers. They want to get out there and dance until they fall out. So you had these soloists who could carry on all night. That was one of the things that made Sonny’s band so popular in certain areas: Sonny could play the thing through once, twice, over again, and add something to it — and people liked that.

Now, Professor Whatley’s band: he’d play a dance, and we’d play a number — maybe “Tea for Two” — and then the number would be over, and people would sit down. When I left Birmingham, I found out that people don’t do it that way in New York and other places: you play sets of numbers. You’d have a set of four or five numbers before people would sit down. Sonny would take just one number, and play it for thirty minutes if he wanted to, as long as he saw people out there dancing.

Of course, Professor Whatley believed in the strictest interpretation of things. Sun Ra would take liberties — and he was composing his music, so he had a say-so in it. Sun Ra took pride in who he was as a creator of music. And that was all he did; morning and night, it was music. He’d say, “I can’t afford to be sick, because my music demands that I’m working twenty-four hours a day on it.” Said, “I wish I didn’t have to do that, but — it’s my mission. And even if I am sick, I’m still creating.”

So Sun Ra was in demand, because his band could improvise. They could start from the back and go to the top, and all that type of thing. And they had some showmanship — they could move a little bit. In Whatley’s band, you just stood there; he didn’t want you to move. Whatley had all these rules, that if you were playing a wedding or something, the band was not to eat the food — because, he said, “You’re the servants.” But in Sun Ra’s band, during intermission, if there was some food out there, they were going to get it. And with the people they were playing for, it was okay.

Man, Sun Ra: that was jazz music. Those guys didn’t wear tuxedos, they wore what they could. He didn’t tell you certain things to wear, like all the other bands would, and as a consequence, they said he never got those jobs over at Mountain Brook Country Club — because his band would be in their BVDs or whatever. Somebody might have a tux on, but the next guy might have his T-shirt on. And Sun Ra wouldn’t discuss that. It was all okay.

He played all over the housing projects — on the street, anywhere he could play. And when I finally started playing with him, that was a change in my life. I found out there was a discipline in Sun Ra’s band that you wouldn’t necessarily perceive. Whatley’s thing was this rigid discipline, which was okay, but in Sun Ra’s band, he had his own concept. With Whatley we were strictly doing what was proper. The dynamics wouldn’t be changed; you weren’t allowed to get up and play a solo unless it was written down. But with Blount, you could stumble over something, and then go back and try it again. And it was the sort of thing where you could talk to each other; you could have fun. You would sit there sometimes all night. If somebody was making a mistake, you could stop and help him — there isn’t anybody getting mad about it.

Sun Ra had discipline, but he had a thing where you would want to discipline yourself. If you messed up, he might say a little something and just pinch you with the fact that you should know better than that: you’re disrespecting the music. He wouldn’t talk about it so much, but you know; you know you didn’t play your best.

When I was playing with Whatley’s orchestra, it was mathematical, precise — and I marveled at that. Everything Fess Whatley did had its place: when to get up, when to go to bed, what to read. I would organize my thing, and it was good.

But I knew there was something else out there in this jazz music.

*

That’s all for now. For more, check out the book Doc. Sign up to follow this blog, and I’ll enter you in a chance to win a copy this week; I’ll announce the winner this Friday, and post a new story about another of Birmingham’s jazz pioneers, the bebop trumpeter Joe Guy. 

Doc Adams book

 

Jazz Demons!

The latest, from my ongoing Book of Ancestors: Fess Whatley’s Jazz Demons.

Jazz Demons, Book of Ancestors

Fess Whatley was nicknamed the “Maker of Musicians,” thanks to the legions of professional jazzmen he trained at Industrial (later Parker) High School in Birmingham. He started the city’s first jazz band — the Jazz Demons, seen here — and for years he led one of the Southeast’s premiere “society” dance bands. After the Jazz Demons came Fess Whatley’s Vibra-Cathedral Orchestra and his Sax-o-Society Orchestra. I love this newspaper ad for Sax-o-Society: “a real jazz orchestra,” it promises — “but not that ‘ear-splitting,’ ‘nerve-racking’ kind.”

sax-o-society ad (photo)

One of Fess Whatley’s many talented students was Herman “Sonny” Blount, the pianist and composer who soon enough would become Sun Ra, one of jazz music’s most extraordinary iconoclasts. Sun Ra always claimed to come from outer space, but his real roots were very much in Birmingham, as the ad below demonstrates. Sonny’s band was one of several student bands Whatley sponsored over the years; this ad, from October 1935, promotes an upcoming show presented by Whatley at Kingsport, Tennessee’s Floral Casino.

Whatley presents Sonny

Incidentally, some great, good news: Doc, my book with another Birmingham jazz hero, Frank “Doc” Adams, will be released in its first paperback edition in just a few weeks. Look for it as of December 18, its official release date, though it’s likely to be available to order within the next few days. Both Fess Whatley and Sun Ra figure prominently into the book; Doc played in both of their bands.

I’m pretty excited for a new round of readers to encounter Doc Adams through this new edition of our book. I hope you’ll get your hands around a copy as soon as you can. Thanks.

Happy Birthday, Doc

“I was born—they tell me I was—on Groundhog’s Day: February 2, 1928.”

This is how Doc Adams started our first interview together, one Saturday afternoon in August of 2008. We’d met only once before, but I’d been eager to meet him again. I’d told him I wanted to write an article about him and his music—he’d played with Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and others and had been a mainstay of the Birmingham jazz community for years—and he agreed to an interview. I arrived with three pages of questions, none of which I got around to asking. The moment I turned on my recorder, Doc launched into his story, starting at his birth and proceeding chronologically from there, laying out his life in remarkable, loving, specific detail—describing, even, the tile on his parents’ living room floor, whose pattern he’d studied from infancy.

Doc had many gifts; just one of them was his power in storytelling. At the end of two hours, he was about to graduate from high school—and I’d abandoned my notebook of questions altogether. As the interview came to a close, he found a place to pause his reminiscence: with the letter of recommendation his early mentor Sun Ra (then still “Sonny Blount”) sent on his behalf to Howard University. It was an effective cliffhanger.

“We’re going to have to have another session,” Doc told me. I happily agreed and came back the next week. And the week after that. For two and a half years we did it again, every Saturday and occasional Sundays, until his story stretched out across a hundred cassette tapes. Eventually I started asking questions. What was going to be an article turned into a book—and, more than that, a life-changing friendship.

Doc died in 2014. For his birthday today I’d like to share this remembrance I wrote after his death for the weekly paper Weld. Of all the things I’ve ever written, this is easily the most meaningful to me. I hope you’ll click the link below to read the full story—and join me in remembering Dr. Frank Adams, with gratitude and love, on this, the anniversary of his birth.

Happy birthday, Doc.

doc-by-jessica

Remembering “Doc” Adams
November 11, 2014 // WELD for Birmingham 

Like a lot of people, I knew Frank Adams most of all as “Doc,” but over the course of an extraordinary life he went by a variety of names. To many among his friends and family he was first and foremost “Frank,” and to years upon years of students at Lincoln Elementary he’d always be “Mr. Adams,” the much-loved teacher and role model.

As a high school student in the ‘40s, he traveled with comedian Mantan Moreland’s Hot Harlem Revue, and Moreland dubbed him “Juniflip,” a name for the young and unpredictable, the energetic but untested. (“You’re just a little Juniflip,” Adams liked to explain in later years: “You might flip over into greatness, or you might flip back into mediocrity.”) Other, older musicians in those days knew him as “Youngblood.” In college at Howard University, his bandmates called him “Francois” — a name which they on some occasions extended to Francois DeBullion (“I never knew where they got that DeBullion,” he said), but which on other occasions, as he launched into an especially hot solo, they might abbreviate to just “’wa.”

“Get it, ’wa!” they’d shout from the sidelines, and — as he’d do from many stages, for many decades to come — he’d get it.

He had an insatiable appetite for education — his students’ education, of course, but also his own — and so he pursued a series of degrees, culminating in the one that made him “Dr. Adams.” The title suited his role as gentleman and scholar, but he shook loose its stifling formality every opportunity he got.

“Please,” he’d plead, “just call me Doc.”

Click HERE to read the rest of this article…

P.S. We are lucky that one of Doc’s students, Jessica Latten, documented his spirit so beautifully in her photographs. The photo on this page is hers; others are included in the Weld story, and she’s taken many(!) more just as good. Thanks to Jessica for sharing these loving portraits of a man whose memory means so much to so many.