Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


YOUNG, Lester

(b Lester Willis Young, 27 August 1909, Woodville MS; d 15 March 1959, NYC) Tenor sax; one of the most influential jazzmen of all time. He played drums in his family's touring band but quit in Phoenix, refusing to tour the South, and took up the tenor in the late 1920s, later alto as well: he carried a portable record player with him, and said he was influenced by Frankie Trumbauer's C-melody sax on Bix Beiderbecke records. He played in territory bands all over the Midwest; joined the Blue Devils in 1932, left with several others to join Bennie Moten; he worked for Count Basie in 1934 but left to join Fletcher Henderson, replacing Coleman Hawkins: he already had an unusual tone on the tenor, sounding almost like an alto, very different from Hawkins, with more swing, playing slightly behind the beat rather than pushing it, in improvisation concentrating on the melody rather than the chords. His linear, logical phrasing as though he were singing a song and his coolness (as opposed to Hawkins's fat richness) became an alternative tenor style and a major contribution to post-war 'cool' jazz. But Henderson's wife, by all acounts a terrible nag, didn't like it: she made him listen to Hawkins's records and demanded that he sound like someone he wasn't; he lasted less than five months with Henderson, but met Billie Holiday during this period, sharing a flat with her and her mother. He played with Andy Kirk and others; auditioned for Earl Hines '36, but rejoined Basie and made his first records in October that year in Chicago.

The effortless, innocent joy of the small-group sides made at that session (see Basie's entry) makes them among the century's most beautiful. 'They'd never heard of anybody recording like that before,' said Jo Jones; 'It took them hours to make four sides. We did it in an hour straight, then out, finish!' Jones described 'Lady Be Good' as 'the best solo Lester ever recorded'. From January 1937 to December 1940 Young was a star of the Basie band on Decca, then Columbia; on Decca the band also included Herschel Evans, a tenor soloist in the Hawkins style: the rivals complemented each other (Young would say to Evans, 'Some of you guys are all belly'). Both are heard on 'Every Tub', 'Doggin' Around', 'Jumpin' At The Woodside' (Evans on clarinet); Young is featured on 'Honeysuckle Rose' and 'Time Out'; Evans plays tenor and Young clarinet on 'Texas Shuffle' etc (all on Decca); among the best-known Young solos on Columbia are 'Taxi War Dance', 'Rock-A-Bye Basie', 'Lester Leaps In' (a septet 'head' allegedly created when he walked in during a take).

He was nicknamed 'Prez' (sometimes 'Pres'; for President) by Holiday; he played on many of her small-group sessions with Teddy Wilson. He said he was thinking of the words when improvising on a ballad, and they were obvious soulmates, both personally and musically (Jimmy Rowles's description of their friendship in Donald Clarke's biography of Holiday Wishing On The Moon is deeply moving). He guested at Benny Goodman's Carnegie Hall Concert '38; played both clarinet and tenor on a wonderful Commodore session '38 with Buck Clayton, Eddie Durham, Basie's rhythm section of Freddie Green, Walter Page and Jones (Young and Clayton on 'Way Down Yonder In New Orleans' capture a heart-breakingly beautiful innocence which is gone for ever). A Goodman session of October 1940 with Charlie Christian, Clayton, Basie and his rhythm, was a rehearsal for a session that took place a few days later without Young, but has a lovely Young solo on 'I Never Knew'. He co-led a band with his brother Lee on drums '41-3, worked with Al Sears, Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, rejoined Basie late '43 until he was drafted in September 1944.

During '43-4 there were small-group records for Commodore (the '38 and '44 Commodores on CD The 'Kansas City Six' Sessions), Bob Thiele's Signature label (now on CD as Classic Tenors, with Hawkins tracks), Keynote (The Complete Lester Young On Keynote included a 4.5-minute version of 'Lester Leaps Again'). He was featured in Gjon Mili's famous short film, Jammin' The Blues '44. A shy, sensitive, superstitious man and an unlikely soldier, he found racism a terrible burden; he spent less than a year in the U.S. Army, much of it in a stockade in Georgia, and emerged after suffering his earliest bouts of poor health. He made small-group sides '45-8 for Aladdin (two-CD set The Complete Aladdin Recordings Of Lester Young on Blue Note was produced by Michael Cuscuna), also for Savoy (duplicates and alternate takes spread over several CDs; the best buy is Master Takes); toured with JATP; spent the rest of his life as a freelance soloist surrounded by imitators: hearing a younger player on a bandstand he allegedly said, 'You're not you, you're me!'

Lee Young described his brother as an introvert. His demon was racism, but his upbringing had not helped to instill feelings of self worth. Lee said, 'My mother was a teacher; my father had been a school principal. He knew one way: "Do it because I say do it." It was perfect for me; if he'd been any other way I'd have been the world's worst cat. But Lester was such a loveable person, he couldn't stand it. You don't deal with kids in the same manner, because of their individual personalities. Lester used to run away from home every time he'd raise his hand to strike him; he ran away six or seven times. He felt that to be struck was to be unloved. It never occurred to my dad that that was the wrong method.'

Lester lived in a hotel room across the street from Birdland, smoking marijuana, drinking excessively, listening to Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday records and watching old western movies on TV; he appeared with Holiday and others on the CBS TV show Sound Of Jazz '57; he played in Paris early in 1959 and died within 24 hours of returning to the USA. His later albums mostly on Verve include a historic 1945 session with Nat Cole and Buddy Rich; The President Plays With The Oscar Peterson Trio (plus Barney Kessel) included Young's vocal on 'Takes Two To Tango'; Pres And Teddy (Wilson) '56 included Vic Dickenson and Roy Eldridge. He received composer credit for tunes including 'Jumpin' With Symphony Sid' (named after a disc jockey). Orthodox critical opinion was that Young's post-war playing was second-rate; Lewis Porter refuted this using musical analysis in his book Lester Young '86. Francis Davis has postulated that there were three Lester Youngs: the young genius who began with Basie, the worldly-wise stockade-damaged master on Aladdin, Savoy, Keynote and into the Verve years, and the 'self-condemned man' who drank too much in his final years. The world may have broken his heart, but Prez knew what he was doing on his horn until nearly the end. Porter's A Lester Young Reader '91 is essential.

See also entries for Lee Young and Billie Holiday.