Lester Young, tenor saxophonist, 1909-1959

In the history of jazz tenor saxophone players, Lester Young is one of the three most influential, revolutionizing the instrument's sound from Coleman Hawkins' raw, hard-swinging sound to create a light, cool style with an airy tone and laid-back rhythms. It wasn't until John Coltrane that someone made such a huge change in the way people played the tenor saxophone.

Lester Young was born on 27 August 1909 in Woodville, Mississippi. He was raised near New Orleans, the oldest of three children. His father, Willis Handy Young taught all three kids music and eventually formed a "family band" which went on the road. Lester learned to play violin, trumpet, and drums before he settled on the saxophone. Just like kids these days, his early years playing were on the smaller alto saxophone.

In 1927 his family band had been playing in Minnesota when Lester, angry with his father, left the family band to play with "The Bostonians" led by Art Bronson. It was then that Lester Young made the permanent switch to tenor saxophone. Lester rejoined his family in New Mexico in 1929, but did not follow them when they went on to California the next year.

Lester's climb up the ladder of musical success began in earnest when he moved to Kansas City in 1933. After playing with such notables as King Oliver, Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra, and Henderson's star Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young began what would be a longtime on-and-off membership with the Count Basie Orchestra. During these late 1930's, Young's innovations had critics confused, but caught the attention of contemporaries like Dexter Gordon and Illinois Jacquet.

Just as noteworthy at this time was Young's collaboration with Billie Holiday. His felt-smooth sound was perfect backing up her distinctive lilting voice. These two jazz greats gave each other their respective nicknames which would stick for the rest of their lives: Billie referred to Lester as "The President of the Tenor Sax", hence "Pres" or "Prez", and Lester called Billie "Lady Day." Young is also responsible for giving trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison his nickname.

Lester Young's appearance was just as distinctive as his playing. He held his sax almost sideways and away from his body, and was always seen wearing a "pork pie hat", a soft, flat hat with a thin brim which is usally folded up all around the head. He also developed a language of his own. David Simpson writes1,

His friends and fellow players called this language "Lesterese," and to them it was a source of constant amusement and wonder. According to Bill Crow’s Jazz Anecdotes (which carries a marvelous photograph of Young on its cover), a narcotics agent, in Lester’s dictionary, was a "Bob Crosby" (as in "Be cool! Bob Crosby’s in the room"). His saxophone keys were his "people" (as in "My people were really smooth tonight"). Following similarly zany logic, Prez called the bridge of a tune a "George Washington," a drummer who thumped too hard a "bomber," and a long-forgotten girlfriend a "wayback."

In September 1944, Young joined the U.S. Army - a big mistake. He hated life as a soldier and retreated to drug use for escape. In February 1945, Young was court martialed for marijuana use and discharged. Some think that his playing was never the same since the army. Indeed Lester became more and more addicted to alcohol as the years went by, and this took its toll on his facilities. Even so, his presence was ever-present in the jazz world: he played every year since 1946 with Jazz at the Philharmonic and was often at the top of the magazine polls. He continued performing with Count Basie and smaller groups, and was even incorporating the ideas of younger musicians, namely the bebop school, into his style.

The 1950's saw a Lester Young in decline. His playing became more inconsistent as his alcohol dependency grew. Embers of his original genius still flared up, for example his 1956 recording Prez in Europe stands out. In 1957 Young was hospitalized and treated for malnutrition, alcoholism and cirrhosis of the liver. While he toured after that, he was forced to return from a trip to Paris in early 1959, and he died in New York City on 15 March 1959. Charles Mingus composed the famous tune "Goodbye Porkpie Hat" in tribute to the Prez.

I can't remember the details, but in the late 1980's I listened to a long radio interview with Young from late in his life being rebroadcast on WBGO (Newark). The DJ prefaced the interview by warning the audience that Young was a bit intoxicated during the taping and in fact naked. They rebroadcast the interview late at night and, as promised, did not censor the many explitives. In spite of these unconventional conditions, or maybe because of them, that interview was a vivid drawing back of the shades for me on the life of a jazz man.

1David Simpson, article on Jazz Institute of Chicago webpage: www.jazzinstituteofchicago.org/index.asp?target=/jazzgram/articles/lester.asp
Most of this information can be found in numerous places. One good site is Ken Burns' "Jazz", www.pbs.org/jazz/biography/artist_id_young_lester.htm

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