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Lester Young

Background information
Birth name Lester Willis Young
Also known as "Prez"
Born August 27, 1909(1909-08-27)
Woodville, Mississippi, U.S.
Origin Kansas City, Missouri, U.S.
Died March 15, 1959 (aged 49)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Genres Jazz
Occupations Saxophonist, clarinetist
Instruments Tenor saxophone, clarinet
Years active 1933–1959
Labels Verve

Lester Willis Young (August 27, 1909 – March 15, 1959),[1] nicknamed "Prez", was an American jazz tenor saxophonist and clarinetist. He also played trumpet, violin, and drums.

Coming to prominence while a member of Count Basie's orchestra, Young is remembered as one of the finest, most influential players on his instrument, playing with a cool tone and sophisticated harmonies. He became a jazz legend, inventing or popularizing much of the hipster ethos which came to be associated with the music.


Early life and career

Lester Young was born in Woodville, Mississippi and grew up in a musical family. Young's father, Willis Handy Young, was a respected teacher, his brother Lee Young was a drummer, and several other relatives played music professionally. His family moved to New Orleans, Louisiana when Lester was an infant and later to Minneapolis. His father taught him to play the trumpet, violin, and drums in addition to the saxophone. He played in his family's band in both the vaudeville and carnival circuits. He left the family band in 1927 because he refused to tour in the Southern United States, where the Jim Crow Laws were in effect.

With the Count Basie Orchestra

In 1933 he settled in Kansas City, where after playing briefly in several bands he rose to prominence with Count Basie. His playing in the Basie band was characterized by 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 orchestra. [2] However, he found the constant pressure from Henderson's wife to play more like Hawkins unbearable, and he soon left Henderson to play in the Andy Kirk band (for six months) before returning to Basie.

While with Basie he made small-group recordings for Milt Gabler's Commodore Records, The Kansas City Sessions, which although they were in fact recorded in New York (in 1938, with a reunion in 1944), are named after the group, the Kansas City Seven, and comprised Buck Clayton, Dicky Wells, Basie, Young, Freddie Green, Rodney Richardson and Jo Jones. Young played clarinet as well as tenor on these sessions; he was a master of the clarinet, and there too, his style was entirely his own. As well as the Kansas City Sessions his clarinet work from 1938-39 is documented on recordings with Basie, Billie Holiday, Basie small groups, 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 at that stage in Young's life - see below).

Eccentric icon

Since the days of Joe "King" Oliver, jazz has bestowed lofty titles upon its ace practitioners. Bessie Smith graduated from "Queen of the Blues" to "Empress of the Blues," Benny Goodman was proclaimed "King of Swing", there was a "Duke" Ellington, a "Count" Basie, and Lester Young was dubbed Prez (short for president, a title given to him by Billie Holiday). "We called my mother 'the Duchess,'" Holiday said in a 1959 interview, "so he [Lester Young] named me 'Lady Day' and I called him 'Prez'--we were the royal family."[3] It has been suggested that Young was called "Prez" long before meeting her, but there is no evidence of that.

Young was viewed as an eccentric by those he chose to exclude from his circle (those he did not trust). He did so by creating his own language that his friends could understand, that might baffle outsiders. Those on the outside viewed it as a rococo and often inscrutable personal slang, famously referring to a narcotics detective or policeman as a "Bob Crosby" (referring to Bob and Bing Crosby if multiple police officers were present), 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.

Leaving Basie

Young left the Basie band in late 1940. He is rumored to have refused to play with the band on Friday, December 13th of that year for superstitious reasons, spurring his dismissal, although the truth of this rumor has been widely disputed. In any event, Lester did leave the band around that time and 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 studio sessions in 1940 and 1941, and also made a small set of recordings with Nat "King" Cole (their first of several collaborations) in June 1942. His studio recordings are relatively sparse during the 1942 to 1943 period, largely due to the American Federation of Musicians' recording ban of that period that reflected (the need of vinyl for) the war effort.

In December 1943, Young returned to the Basie fold for what ended up being a 10-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 Gjon Mili's short film 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 Glenn 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. McClellan, 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[2] 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. Recordings show that his playing began to change before he was drafted. Some argue that Young's playing had an increasingly emotional slant to it, and the post-war period featured some of his greatest renditions of ballads.

Post-war recordings

Whatever the changes in his playing style, his career after World War II was far more prolific and lucrative than in the pre-war years, in terms of recordings made, live performances, and annual income. Young 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 for his Verve Records label as well, including more trio recordings with Nat King Cole. Young also recorded extensively in the late 1940s for Aladdin Records (1946-7, where he had made the Cole recordings in 1942), and for Savoy (1944, '49 and '50) some sessions of which included Basie on piano.

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. The line-up for that concert included Charlie Parker and Roy Eldridge.

Struggle and revival

From around 1951, Young's level of playing began to decline more precipitously, as he began to drink more and more heavily. His playing increasingly demonstrated reliance on a small number of clichéd phrases and reduced creativity and originality, despite his claims that he did not want to be a "repeater pencil" (Young coined this phrase to describe the act of repeating one's own past ideas). A comparison of his studio recordings from 1952, such as the session with pianist Oscar Peterson, 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 Granz-produced sessions with pianist Teddy Wilson (who had led the Billie Holiday recordings with Young in the 1930s). Another success that year was the Jazz Giants '56 session with Roy Eldridge, trombonist Vic Dickenson and other swing-era artists. All things considered, 1956 was a relatively good year for Lester Young, including a tour of Europe with Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Quartet and a successful stint at Olivia's Patio Lounge in Washington DC.

Throughout the 1940s and 50s Young had sat in on Count Basie Orchestra gigs from time to time. The best-known of these is their July 1957 appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, the line-up including many of Lester's old buddies: Jo Jones, Roy Eldridge, Illinois Jacquet 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.

The final years

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 tunes "Lady Sings The Blues" and "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. However, Young seemed gravely ill, and was the only horn player who was seated (except during his solo) during the performance. By this time his self-destructive habits had begun to take hold terminally. He was eating significantly less, drinking more and more, 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.

Lester Young made his final studio recordings and live performances in Paris in March 1959 with drummer Kenny Clarke at the tail end of an abbreviated European tour during which he ate next to nothing and virtually drank himself to death. He died in the early morning hours of March 15, 1959, only hours after arriving back in New York, at the age of 49. He was buried at the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn.[4] 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." Holiday died four months later at age 44.

Posthumous dedications and influence

Charles Mingus dedicated an elegant elegy, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat", for Young only a few months after his death.[5] 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'.[6] 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 Parker on tenor sax are similar in style to that of Young. Lesser known saxophonists, such as Warne Marsh, were strongly influenced by Young.

Don Byron recorded the album Ivey-Divey in gratitude of what he learned from studying Lester Young's work, modeled after a 1956 trio date with Buddy Rich and Nat King Cole. "Ivey-Divey" was one of Lester Young's common eccentric phrases.

Young is a major character in English writer Geoff Dyer's 1991 fictional book about jazz, But Beautiful. "The Resurrection of Lady Lester" by OyamO (Charles F. Gordon) is a play and published book depicting Young's life; subtitled "A Poetic Mood Song Based on the Legend of Lester Young".

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.

Acid Jazz/boogaloo band the Greyboy Allstars song "Tenor Man" is a tribute to Young. On their 1999 album "Live", saxophonist Karl Denson introduces the song by saying, "now some folks may have told you that Lester Young is out of style, but we're here to tell you that the Prez is happenin' right now." Those were literally the lyrics Rahsaan Roland Kirk wrote and sang to the melody of the Charles Mingus elegy, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat".

Peter Straub's short story collection Magic Terror (2000) contains a story called "Pork Pie Hat", a fictional account of the life of Lester Young. Straub was inspired by Young's appearance on the 1957 CBS-TV show, The Sound of Jazz, which he watched repeatedly, wondering how such a genius could have ended up such a human wreck.[1]

He is said to have popularized the term cool as slang for something fashionable.[7] Another slang term he coined was the term "bread" for money. He would ask "How does the bread smell?" when asking how much a gig was going to pay. [8]


  • The Complete Lester Young Studio Sessions on Verve - 8-CD boxed set (includes the only 2 Young interviews in existence)
  • Count Basie The Complete Decca Recordings (1937-39) -
  • The Kansas City Sessions (1938 and 1944) Commodore Records
  • The Complete Aladdin Recordings (1942-7) the 1942 Nat King Cole session and more from the post-war period
  • The Lester Young Trio (1946) - with Cole again, and Buddy Rich Verve Records
  • The Complete Savoy Recordings (1944-50)
  • One Night Stand - The Town Hall Concert 1947 - live recording
  • Lester Young with the Oscar Peterson Trio (1952) Verve Records
  • Pres and Teddy (1956) Verve Records
  • The Jazz Giants '56 (1956) -
  • Lester Young in Washington, D.C., 1956 (5 volumes), with house-band the Bill Potts Trio.
  • Count Basie - At Newport (1957)


  • Luc Delannoy. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press. ISBN 1-55728-264-1.  

External links

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