Mornings at Tiny's Tavern were usually pretty quiet. Most of the musicians who hung out there at night were late sleepers, and the first regulars didn't come around until the afternoon. But there were one or two from the neighborhood who always showed up around ten A.M., when Tiny unlocked the front door. They preferred the Tavern, even when it was nearly deserted, to their lonely furnished rooms.
I had a gig at an after-hours club one night, and then afterwards I played the first set at a breakfast dance up in Harlem, so I stopped by Tiny's for an eye-closer before heading home to my pad in the Village. The only other customer was an old saxophone player in the back booth, nursing a beer by himself. I knew him by sight but not by name. Tiny was pouring me a taste at the bar when Little Phil pushed open the front door and walked in, calling out cheerful greetings. Little Phil wasn't more than twenty years old, and he played real nice guitar. He was so full of enthusiasm about music, I always enjoyed having him around.
"Hey, Tiny! Hey, Fess!" Phil pulled up a barstool. "Man, I woke up laughing this morning," he says, laughing again at the thought. "I had the best dream I ever had! I finally got to meet Billie Holiday, and I got to play with her and Lester Young!" He ran his fingers through his dark, curly hair and shook his head with amazement. "Boy! What a great dream! Billie Holiday!"
Billie had used her life up too fast. She died a few months after Pres passed, not of a broken heart, but from running herself down with drugs and booze. Everybody felt real bad. She was one of a kind. Pres...that was Billie's pet name for Lester Young. She said all the other great jazz musicians had nicknames like King and Duke and Count, but that Lester should be named after the biggest man in the U.S.A., president Roosevelt. So he was Pres to her, and everybody else ended up calling him that. And Pres called Billie "Lady Day."
"You were tight with Billie, weren't you, Fess?" Little Phil asked me.
"I knew her. Played for her a few times. But I was kind of afraid of her. She had an evil mouth when she was juicing. I mostly stayed out of her way. But I never missed a chance to hear her sing."
Little Phil laughed. "I never got to meet her. But I finally did last night. Boy, it seemed so real! I dreamed I was sitting in the Silver Dollar with Pres and Roy Eldridge."
Tiny grunted disdainfully at the mention of the other midtown bar that catered to musicians.
"I was listening to a story Roy was telling," continued Little Phil, "when Billie walked in. See, in my dream, she never died! She was a little older, and had gained some weight, but she was still beautiful. She was wearing a black suit, and a hat with feathers on it. Her hair was a little gray, and she wore glasses. But her eyes were the same as ever. Beautiful! And her skin looked so soft, and her mouth, still so pretty...Jesus! Pres introduced us. I took her hand and said, 'I'm so glad to finally get to meet you! I've been in love with you all my life!' She looked at me with those beautiful eyes and said, 'Damn, baby, it sure is time we met, then, ain't it?'
"While she held my hand, Lester asked, 'How's my Lady Day today?' 'Just fine, Pres,' she said. 'I finally got rid of that damn pimp that was messin' up my life. And my pipes is workin' better than ever. I been off of the hard shit for over a year, now, and I feel real good. You got a gig for me?'"
Little Phil closed his eyes and smiled as he recalled his dream. Tiny scowled and busied himself with his bar cloth, but he continued to listen.
"Lester laughed without making any noise, with his face all screwed up like he was in pain. Then he sighed and said, 'Pres was hopin' you had a gig for him!' We all laughed, and Roy said, 'Wouldn't none of us be sittin' on our asses here in the Dollar on a Saturday night if any of us had a gig!'
"Billie said, 'At least we can have a little taste together. Bartender, drinks all around, and pour yourself one, too, baby. We celebrating my birthday! Whoever thought this bitch would last this long!'
"She pulled herself up onto a barstool, with a little help from Pres and me, each of us holding an elbow. There was no gardenia in her hair any more, but she still smelled like gardenias. I asked her, 'Do you still sing the same songs?'
"'Some of 'em," she said. 'But not the sad ones. And not Strange Fruit any more. That damn song took too much out of me to sing. And the audiences these days wouldn't know what the hell I was singin' about anyway. But I got some new ones I been writin', baby. Pres, I want you to hear this new song of mine. I been writin' glad songs, baby, you believe this shit? I just finished this one.' She patted her fingers rhythmically on the edge of the bar, laying down a medium tempo. Then she began to sing. Her voice was strong and just wonderful."
Then Little Phil sang, in a fair approximation of Billie's phrasing:
"The World Is My Oyster,
My skies are all blue,
Ain't nothin' can bring me down, 'cause
I'm happy with you.
All troubles behind me,
Got nothin' to do
But spend the night in sweet delight, 'cause
I'm happy with you."
Little Phil laughed with delight at having dreamed such a song.
"Then, like magic," he said, "Lester had his tenor, Roy had a trumpet with a cup mute, and I had my guitar. And Papa Jo Jones was beside us with a set of drums, playing brushes and smiling his big smile. We all joined Billie on the bridge, Lester tipping lightly through the chords behind her, and she sang:
"I've forgotten all my cares
They just don't mean a thing,
Sure don't feel like crying now,
I just want to sing.
My skies are all sunny,
My whole life is new,
The World Is My Oyster now, 'cause
I'm happy with you."
Little Phil stopped singing and pointed to his empty beer glass, which Tiny refilled without saying a word. Phil took a sip and continued:
"Billie sat back with her elbows behind her on the edge of the bar. She kind of cocked her head and smiled, and swung her foot to the beat as Pres took a second chorus. He played just the way he used to on the old records, swinging his ass off. Oh, man, it was so good!
"We played, and we played, and we played, and I woke up laughing, and feeling high and happy! That was one of the best times I ever had, Fess! I can still hear the music! And I remember every word of Billie's song! Even if it was just a dream, I was really living in the good old days." He shook his head and said, a little less happily, "The ones I missed out on, being too damn young."
Tiny raised an eyebrow at me, and then growled at Little Phil,
"Listen, right now is the good old days for you, kid. You missed some good times back then, but you missed out on a lot of crap, too. You'll have your own good times, believe me. And twenty years from now, you'll be telling some young kid about how great it was to be here, hanging out with Fess and me."
To prove his point, Tiny did a rare and wonderful thing. He poured us each a shot of bar scotch. On the house.