Lester Young: An American original
by David Simpson
He wasn’t at the recent "Tenor Madness" series at the DuSable Museum (though he was certainly there as a spiritual guide). And you won’t see him—pork pie hat atilt, thin necktie casually knotted, saxophone gripped almost horizontally—pouring notes across the main stage at this year’s Jazz Festival. But if you look and listen carefully, you’ll detect clear echoes of his tone and playing technique—along with subtle traces of his demeanor, speech, and personal style—in nearly every modern-day jazz performer. He was the one and only Lester Young—indisputably one of the most influential figures in post-Swing jazz and the effective creator of the "Chicago" tenor sound.
It’s fitting that this year’s Jazz Festival should kick off during the last week of August. For this way the event serves not only as a birthday celebration for saxophone legend Charlie Parker (b. August 29, 1920), but also, and just as fittingly, as a tribute to Lester Young (b. August 27, 1909, in Woodville, Mississippi). Young, after all, was the quirky genius who inspired the sound of Bird himself, of Chicago’s Johnny Griffin, of Gene Ammons, Stan Getz, and an entire generation of post-WWII horn players. ("Anyone who doesn’t play like Prez," Brew Moore once replied to a critic who accused him of imitating Young, "is wrong!")
While growing up in a musical family (his father was a trumpeter and band leader), Prez tried his hand at a variety of instruments—including drums, trumpet, and violin—before settling on, first, the alto and, finally, the tenor saxophone. Even as a youth he had his own musical ideas and ambitions, and at age eighteen he abruptly left his father’s band to pursue an independent career. After far-flung tours (1928-30) took him up and down the Mississippi and across the midwest from Minnesota to New Mexico, Lester settled in Kansas City in the early 30s. It was there, following brief stints with Benny Moten and Fletcher Henderson, that he landed a tenor seat with the Count Basie band and began making musical history.
As its lead tenor from 1934-39, Young helped the Basie band become the ultimate expression of high-powered Swing. Of course before his arrival in Kansas City, the local tenor scene—indeed the entire world of jazz saxophone playing—had been dominated by Coleman Hawkins, Lester’s illustrious predecessor with the Fletcher Henderson band. By this time Hawk had already defined the style of the savvy Swing-era tenor player with his rich, plump, buttery sound, so when Lester came to town local musicians were perplexed to hear something entirely different—a new distinctively "cool" sound with very little vibrato; a sound familiarly mellow in the lower register, but with a hard, crisp, cutting edge near the top. Eventually this sound would usher in an entire new era of tenor playing and clear the way for the emergence of bebop.
But his playing style wasn’t the only thing different about Lester Young. He himself was a walking, talking jazz composition—a living exercise in artistic improvisation. Like his horn-playing technique, Prez’s personal style was a blend of casualness and artifice, naturalness and craft. His wardrobe, for example, was a combination fit as well for snazzy uptown nightclubs as for smoky neighborhood bars. Unlike New York and New Orleans band members, who frequently donned tuxes or fancy full-dress uniforms, KC musicians favored a grubbier, more comfortable look. Hawk and Prez even wore their hats on stage, with Hawkins sporting a short-brimmed fedora while Young immortalized the pork-pie look. Together the two tenor players helped create a fashion statement—hats, narrow neckties, dark rumpled suits—that has been part of the midwestern jazz and blues tradition ever since. Talk about being a cultural influence—not only did Prez shape the playing skills of an entire generation of young saxophonists, he also originated the sartorial style of Jake and Elwood Blues!
Young even influenced the way jazz artists talk. Like several other jazz performers (notably Jelly Roll Morton and Cab Calloway), Lester was renowned for his vibrant and colorful speech. Indeed no one could surpass him for originality and inventiveness. For Prez didn’t simply repeat familiar formulas or use conventional jazzman’s slang. Instead, he spoke a unique, private language—a brash, funny, poetic argot with a vocabulary and grammar all its own. 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."
Remarkably, Lesterese was only part of Prez’s verbal gamesmanship: he was a relentless and dead-on nicknamer as well and would zing friends and foes alike with monickers that stuck. It was Lester, for instance, who first hung the sobriquet "Sweets" on Harry Edison and the famous nickname "Lady Day" on Billie Holiday. Billie returned the favor by calling her favorite tenor player "The President," later shortened to Prez.
For a relatively brief but impressively productive period (1936-44), Lester Young was the Man—a giant artist and one of the most influential performers in American popular music. Starting in 1944, however, his career grew bumpy and traveled mostly downhill. That was the year he was finally drafted into the military (after notoriously ignoring a series of earlier induction notices). Then, while still in the service, he was arrested for marijuana possession and confined for a year in an army detention barracks.
When he got out, friends say he was never the same, his earlier playfulness and jocularity having given way to moody reticence and a suspiciousness bordering on paranoia. Constantly high on pot or alcohol, his playing became undependable, erratic. Finally, down and out in Paris in 1959 (cf. the excellent Bertrand Tavernier film Round Midnight in which Dexter Gordon portrays a horn player based in part on Prez and in part on his melancholy soul mate Bud Powell), Young headed back to the States and died in New York City on his first day back home.
In addition to his wonderful music (see the CD’s listed below) Lester’s most enduring legacy has been his memorable persona. For although it was never his intention, Young became an early model for the modern-day artist/celebrity as a living cultural statement and artifact. The only difference of course is that while most of today’s media performers — the Madonnas and Dennis Rodmans of the pop-entertainment world—are merely simulated individualists (their supposed eccentricity being little more than a PR or marketing ploy), Lester, on the other hand, was the genuine article. He was, and always will be, "The President," a true American original.
A Multimedia Sampler
1. Lester Young: A Lester Young Story. Jazz Archives, No. 48. 1991. Twenty-two digitally remastered cuts from Young’s peak performance period (1936-1940). Includes Basie classics "Jumpin at the Woodside" and "Lester Leaps In" as well as sessions with Teddy Wilson and Billie Holiday.
2. Lester Young & the Piano Giants. Verve 835316. Lester with Nat King Cole, John Lewis, Oscar Peterson, and Teddy Wilson.
3. The Real Kansas City. Columbia 64855. Produced as a rival to the Altman film soundtrack, this 1996 CD contains twenty-five Swing classics by the original artists. Features Lester, Basie, Benny Moten, Fletcher Henderson, Walter Page, Coleman Hawkins, and many others.
1. A Great Day in Harlem (1995). Written and produced by Jean Bach; narration by Quincy Jones. A documentary film of the summer morning in 1958 when 57 of the greatest names in jazz assembled on the steps of a Harlem brownstone for Art Kane’s famous Esquire magazine photograph. Includes a brief segment on Lester with reminiscences by Johnny Griffin, Horace Silver, and Sonny Rollins.
2. Kansas City (1996). Generally disappointing and overblown Robert Altman film that nevertheless features a great cast and an all-star list of current jazz artists. Highlights include a reprise of a legendary late-night cut session between Lester (James Carter) and Coleman Hawkins (Joshua Redman) that supposedly took place at the KC Subway Club in 1934 (and which in the movie is attended by a skinny, 14-year-old Charlie Parker).
1. Porter, Lewis, ed. A Lester Young Reader. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991. A miscellany of articles, interviews, reviews, anecdotes, etc.
2. Buchmann-Muller, Frank. "You Just Fight for Your Life": The Story of Lester Young. New York: Praeger Press, 1990. The closest thing to a reliable biography.
VIDEO Addendum by the Editor (smm). Add to Simpson’s excellent listings the superb video biography of Lester Young, Song of the Spirit: The Story of Lester Young (1988). This 2-hour production by Bruce Frederickson was a personal labor of love; most "complete" stores stock it. It ends with the second most famous Lester short, the 10-minute concert tape "Jammin’ the Blues." The most famous Lester short is the single chorus he played in Billie Holiday’s number, "Fine and Mellow" in the renowned golden-age production, The Sound of Jazz.
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