Lester Young

Portrait of Lester Young, Famous Door, New York City in 1946 by William P. Gottlieb.

Lester Willis Young (August 27, 1909 – March 15, 1959), nicknamed "Prez", was an American jazz tenor saxophonist and clarinetist. He is remembered as one of the finest of the players on his instrument and for much of the hipster ethos which came to be associated with jazz.

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Early life and career

Young was born in Woodville, Mississippi and grew up in a musical family. Young's father, Willis Handy Young, was a high school principal but also a freelance musician, especially with traveling carnivals. He knew how to play and teach many instruments, including violin, cornet, trumpet, saxophone, and drums, as well as voice. Lester's brother Lee Young was a drummer, and several other relatives played music professionally.

The Young family moved to New Orleans when Lester was an infant and later to Minneapolis. His father taught him to play trumpet, violin, and drums in addition to the saxophone. He played in his family's band in both the vaudeville and carnival circuits. His father's heavy-handed approach caused him to rebel and he left home several times and also caused him to become lazy, preferring to play by ear rather than reading music. He left the family band in 1927 because he refused to tour in the American South, where the Jim Crow Laws were in effect.

In 1933 he settled in Kansas City after brief membership of several bands. He rose to prominence in the Count Basie Orchestra by playing in a relaxed style, which contrasted sharply with the aggressive approach of Coleman Hawkins, the dominant tenor player of the day.

Young left the Basie band to replace Hawkins in Fletcher Henderson's band, but he received intense criticism and pressure to play like Hawkins. He soon left to play with the Andy Kirk band (for six months) and he later returned to star with Basie. His recordings with the Basie band during the pre-World War II period of 1936 to 1940 were nothing short of revolutionary—rather than being bound by the "time" of the band, his solos "floated" above it and defined the time his own way. A true improviser, his solos often differed significantly from one to the next on alternate takes. In fact, many view the time Young spent with the Basie band as the band's zenith. Clarinetist Frank Powers said (around 1960), "man, I haven't listened to Basie since Prez left."

Young was also a master of the clarinet, and there too, his style was entirely his own. His clarinet work from 1938-1939 is documented on recordings with Basie, Billie Holiday, and small groups both under his own leadership, that of Basie, and the obscure organist Glenn Hardman. His clarinet was stolen in 1939, and he abandoned the instrument until about 1957, when Norman Granz gave him one and urged him to play it (with far different results).

Eccentric icon

Riff theme from “Jumpin' with Symphony Sid,” ascribed to Lester Young

Since Jazz already had a "king of swing" with Benny Goodman, a "Duke" Ellington, and a "Count" Basie, Lester Young was known as “Prez” (as in "the president of the tenor saxophone"), a name given to him by Billie Holiday (though some sources assert that he had been called "Prez" long before meeting her). He returned the favor by dubbing her "Lady Day."

Young was viewed as an eccentric by those he chose to exclude from his circle (i.e., those he did not trust). He was considered taciturn and uncommunicative by most whites, but those close to him treasured his tremendous wisdom and wit. He created his own language that his friends would understand, but those he didn't trust would not. Those on the outside viewed it as an inscrutable personal slang, where he famously referred to a narcotics detective or policeman as a "Bob Crosby," a rehearsal as a "molly trolley," and an instrumentalist's keys or fingers as his "people." He dressed distinctively, especially in his trademark pork pie hat.

When he played saxophone, particularly in his younger days, he would sometimes hold the horn off to the right side at a near-horizontal angle, like a flute. Joop Visser believes that it was Lester's residence in the stuffy Reno Club with the Count Basie Band that caused this idiosyncrasy, as by holding it that way it was the only way Lester could keep his tenor sax from knocking into someone else's instrument. He is considered by many to be an early hipster, predating Slim Gaillard and Dizzy Gillespie.

Young left the Basie band in late 1940. He is rumored to have refused to play with the band on Friday, December 13 of that year for superstitious reasons, spurring his dismissal, although the truth of this rumor has been widely disputed. In any event, Lester subsequently led a number of small groups that often included his brother, noted drummer Lee Young, for the next couple of years; some very notable live and broadcast recordings from this period exist. During this period, Young accompanied Billie Holiday on a couple of great studio sessions in 1940 and 1941 and also made a small set of brilliant recordings with Nat "King" Cole (their first of several collaborations) in June 1942. It should be noted that his studio recordings are relatively sparse during the 1942 to 1943 period, largely due to the American Federation of Musicians' recording ban during that period that reflected the war effort.

In December 1943, Young returned to the Basie fold for what ended up being a ten-month stint, cut short by his army induction (see below). Recordings made during this and subsequent periods suggest Young was beginning to make much greater use of a plastic reed, which tended to give his playing a somewhat heavier, breathier tone (although still quite smooth compared to that of many other players). While he certainly never abandoned the wooden reed, he did utilize the plastic reed a significant share of the time from 1943 until the end of his life. Another cause for the thickening of his tone around this time was a change in saxophone mouthpiece from a metal Otto Link to an ebonite Brilhart. In August 1944, Young appeared alongside drummer Jo Jones, trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison, and fellow tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet in Norman Granz's film short Jammin' the Blues.

Army induction and its effects

In September 1944, Young and Jo Jones were in Los Angeles with the Basie Band when they were inducted into the U.S. Army. Unlike many white musicians, who were placed in band outfits such as the ones led by Glen Miller and Artie Shaw, Young was put in the regular army where he wasn't allowed to play his saxophone. Young was based in Ft. McClelland, Alabama, when marijuana and alcohol were found among his possessions. The army also discovered that he was married to a white woman. Racist mistreatment followed and he was soon court-martialed. Young did not fight the charges and was convicted. He served one year in a detention barracks and was dishonorably discharged in late 1945. His experience in the detention barracks inspired his composition "D.B. Blues" (with D.B. standing for detention barracks).

Some jazz historians have argued that Young's playing power declined in the years following his traumatic army experience, though critics such as Scott Yanow disagree with this entirely. It is a fact, that his playing began to change before he was drafted, as records shows. One objective truth regarding the final 14 years of Young's life is that they proved to be considerably more productive for him (compared to the pre-World War II years) in terms of number of studio recordings, number of live appearances, and level of income per year. In addition, his playing arguably had an increasingly and profoundly emotional slant to it, and this period featured some of his greatest rendering of ballads. He joined Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) troupe in 1946, touring regularly with them over the next 12 years, and made a significant number of studio recordings under Granz's supervision as well. Young also recorded extensively for the Aladdin and Savoy labels in the latter half of the 1940s.

While the quality and consistency of his playing arguably ebbed gradually in the latter half of the 1940s and into the early 1950s, he did give some brilliant performances during this stretch. Particularly noteworthy are his performances with JATP in 1946, 1949, and 1950—his solo on "Lester Leaps In" at the 1949 JATP concert at Carnegie Hall stands as perhaps one of the greatest solos by any jazz musician ever.

Final years

Beginning around 1951, Young's level of play began to decline more precipitously, as he began to drink more heavily. His playing increasingly demonstrated greater reliance on a smaller number of clichéd phrases and reduced creativity and originality, despite his claims that he did not want to be a "repeater pencil" (Young's coined phrase describing the act of repeating one's own past ideas). A comparison of his studio recordings from 1952 and those from 1953-1954 (all available on the Verve label) also demonstrates a declining command of his instrument and sense of timing, possibly due to both mental and physical factors. Young's playing and health went into a tailspin, culminating in a November 1955 hospital stint following a nervous breakdown.

He emerged from this treatment considerably improved, as evidenced by his January 1956 recording sessions with Teddy Wilson, Roy Eldridge, Harry Edison and Jo Jones, and 1956 was a relatively good year for him.

In July 1957 he appeared with the Count Basie Orchestra at the Newport Jazz Festival with old buddies: Jo Jones, Roy Eldridge, Illinois Jaquet and Jimmy Rushing. His playing was in better shape than usual at this time, and he even managed to produce some of the old, smooth toned flow of the 1930s. Among other tunes he played a moving "Polkadots and Moonbeams," which was a favorite of his at that time.

On December 8, 1957, he appeared with Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge, and Gerry Mulligan in the CBS television special The Sound of Jazz, performing Holiday's tune "Fine and Mellow." It was a reunion with Holiday, with whom he'd fallen out of contact for years, and who was also in decline at the end of her career, and the occasion elicited particularly moving performances from them both. Young's solo was brilliant, considered by many jazz musicians an unparalleled marvel of economy, phrasing and extraordinarily moving emotion. Young seemed gravely ill, and was the only horn player who was seated (except during his solo) during the performance.

Young made his final studio recordings and live performances in Paris in March 1959, at the tail end of an abbreviated European tour during which he ate next to nothing and virtually drank himself to death—his self-destructive habits had finally taken their toll. He was eating significantly less and suffering from liver disease and malnutrition. Young's sharply diminished physical strength in the final two years of his life yielded some recordings that manifested a frail tone, shortened phrases, and, on rare occasions, an alarming difficulty in getting any sound to come out of his horn at all. He died in the early morning hours of March 15, 1959, only hours after arriving back in New York, at the age of 49. Perhaps not a complete coincidence, Holiday died only four months later at the age of 44. According to renowned jazz critic Leonard Feather, who rode with Holiday in a taxi to Young's funeral, she told Feather on the ride over, "I'll be the next one to go."

Tributes and Legacy

Charles Mingus composed an elegant elegy, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," for Young only a few months after his death. Wayne Shorter, then of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, composed a tribute, called "Lester Left Town."

Young's playing style influenced many other tenor saxophonists. Perhaps the most famous and successful of these were Stan Getz and Dexter Gordon, but he also influenced many in the cool movement such as Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, and Gerry Mulligan. Paul Quinichette modeled his style so closely on Young's that he was sometimes referred to as the “Vice Prez.” Sonny Stitt began to incorporate elements from Lester Young's approach when he made the transition to tenor saxophone. Lester Young also had a direct influence on young Charlie Parker ("Bird"), and thus the entire be-bop movement. Indeed, recordings of Young on alto saxophone are similar to Parker's style.

Don Byron recorded the album Ivey-Divey in gratitude of what he learned from studying Lester Young's work, modeled after a '56 Trio date with Buddy Rich and Nat King Cole. “Ivey-Divey” was one of Young's common eccentric phrases.

In the 1986 film 'Round Midnight, the fictional main character, Dale Turner (played by Dexter Gordon) was partly based on Young, incorporating flashback references to his Army experiences, and loosely depicting his time in Paris and his return to New York just before his death.

References

  • Gelly, Dave and Tony Middleton. Lester Young. Spellmount, NY: Hippocreae Books, 1984. ISBN 0870520105
  • Kirchner, Bill. The Oxford Companion to Jazz. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN 019512510X
  • Porter, Lewis. Lester Young. Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers, 1985. ISBN 080579459X

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