Lester Young - Black Jazz Stories

Lester Young - Black Jazz Stories

Written By Mike Blome

Lester Young (1909-1959) was one of the most influential tenor sax players in the history of jazz. He came to prominence with the Count Basie band in Kansas City in the 1930s, and was rapidly recognized as an original talent who was playing in a new style all his own. At the time, the dominant tenor player was Coleman Hawkins. Whereas Hawkins made extensive use of arpeggios and lines that explored the nuances of the underlying harmony, Young typically played more "horizontal" lines, creating melodies that "told a story." His phrasing, tone, and sense of swing conveyed a depth of emotion, intelligence, and humor that are as fresh today as ever. He never played the same solo twice.

Young was known for his gentle manner, his distinctive way of dressing, including his signature Pork Pie Hat, his refusal to compromise his artistic principles, and his original vocabulary. He is credited with coining the nickname "Lady Day" for Billie Holiday, and with the use of the word "cool" as we use it to this day as in "play it cool."

Lester was highly respected by other musicians as much for his keen mind as for his playing style. Tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin said "I've only met two hip people in my life and the rest were pretenders…[Lester Young and Thelonious Monk] could say certain things that would be right to the point without a bunch of b.s. It could be humorous or it could be ironic but really right on it." [1] Billy Taylor said of him: "Lester's approach to everything he did in life was concerned with beauty." [2]

Young was born in 1909 in Woodville, Mississippi. His parents, Willis and Lizetta, were both schoolteachers as well as musicians. At some point early in Lester's life, they separated and returned to the New Orleans area where both were from originally. Lester, his younger brother Lee, and sister Irma lived with their mother. She was a singer and no doubt Lester grew up hearing traditional spirituals as well as hymns and popular parlor music of the day. Lester's formal education ended in the fourth grade, after which time he earned money shining shoes on the street and passing out handbills advertising dances. In that most musical of American cities, every day he would have heard many styles of music, including the "hot" or "ratty" styles that were to become known as jazz. In later years he recalled, "I loved that music so well."

In 1919, when Lester was 10 years old, Willis abruptly returned and took custody of the children, and they did not see Lizetta again for 20 years. According to Irma, Lester had been particularly close with his mother. The circumstances of his sudden separation from her must have been traumatic, but he never discussed it in public. Little else is known of Lizetta, apart from a listing in the New Orleans directory that indicates she ran a music school.

Willis Young was known as "professor." For a time, he had served as a school superintendent in the New Orleans area, but by 1919 he seems to have been making his living by music, teaching and performing. His family roots were in Lafourche parish, where "Creole" musical traditions predominated, with an emphasis on written music and European forms. He must have begun training his children immediately in music because by 1924 he had started his own touring band, including Lee, Lester, and Irma.

Lester started on drums, but after a couple of years switched to saxophone, a new instrument at the time. He immediately demonstrated a precocious gift for the instrument. He had the gift of being able to play a melody after hearing it once or twice, and thus was able to play his parts without learning to read music. After a time, the professor decided to call Lester on his bluff. He put a few bars of written music in front of him and told him to play what was written, first demonstrating the passage—incorrectly. Lester played what he had heard, not what was written, and for that was rewarded with a blow from a yardstick, and told not to come back to the band until he learned to read.

Willis was an exacting bandleader, a stern disciplinarian, and an astute businessman. He was a charismatic, deeply religious individual who believed music was a means of uplifting Black folks out of the poverty and degradation in which Jim Crow America tried confine them. He demanded perfection of his musicians and rewarded them with steady work and the opportunity to tour the country (primarily the Midwest and South), something that would have otherwise been extremely difficult and risky for African Americans at the time.

Even with the band there were dangers. Once in Harlan, Kentucky, the police had to escort the performers from their railroad car to the showground to protect them from a hostile crowd of whites that called them names and groped the female dancers. [3] On another occasion somewhere in the South, Lester had to smuggle a gun to a cousin who was hiding from a lynch mob. However, most of the time the band was enthusiastically received.

By touring with his father's band as an adolescent for most of the 1920s, Lester developed a strong sense of musical discipline and learned firsthand the customs and manners in various parts of the country. However, his relationship with his father was not without its conflicts, and more than once he ran away for extended periods. He left the band for good in the late 1920s rather than go on tour again in the South. The family had settled in Minneapolis, Minnesota where they resided in the winter months, and here Lester began going all in for jazz. He began to develop a reputation in jam sessions and cutting contests and toured occasionally with regional bands. After a couple of years, he moved to Kansas City, where work for jazz musicians was plentiful in the days when the Pendergast crime organization ran the city.

In 1934 the Fletcher Henderson band came to Kansas City, but one night its star soloist Coleman Hawkins failed to show up. Henderson, understandably agitated, came outside and called out to the throng of people asking whether there were any tenor players in Kansas City. Young and another sax player, Herschel Evans, were there with their horns about to head to their own gig. Evans couldn't read music, and so Young, at the urging of his friends, accepted the challenge. He went in, sat in Hawkins's seat, played his parts flawlessly, then departed for his gig. [4] This feat impressed Henderson sufficiently that later that year, after Hawkins left for England, he asked Young to join his band. Lester accepted but refused to change his style to sound like Hawkins and thus earned the enmity of the other band members. They never accepted Young and so Henderson was forced to fire him, but not before pointedly telling each member of the sax section that Young could outplay them.

Lester returned to Minneapolis and after some time he auditioned for Earl Hines but was not hired. When Hines' manager asked Hines why Young held his sax "out like that" Hines replied: Son, that's a peculiarity of his... and he does it to be different, I guess. What he's doing is way ahead of our time. The average musician doesn't conceive of what he's doing because they're all on the Coleman Hawkins thing, but one day…"[5]

In 1936 Young was feeling so sufficiently confident that he sent a telegram to Count Basie offering his services. Basie knew of Young and accepted. The timing was good because Basie was about to leave for New York City for an extended engagement at the Roseland Ballroom. New Yorkers loved the Kansas City sound of the band, with its heavy emphasis on blues riffs, and the engagement launched the band to Swing Era stardom. It was at this time that Young met Billie Holiday, who introduced him to New York City, and thus began a lifelong friendship and an unmatched musical collaboration. It's simply impossible to imagine Holiday's renditions of songs from the late 1930s and 1940s without the sax of Lester Young. Young also made the rounds of big-time jam sessions soon after his arrival in NYC. He was apparently ready for the big time--the first time Benny Goodman jammed with Young, he gave him his clarinet on the spot.

Young stayed with the Basie band for five years, during which time he cemented his stature as a leading sax soloist. However, as with other African American musicians, Young's fame and prestige did not produce the economic rewards enjoyed by the most famous White musicians such as Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Gene Krupa or Artie Shaw. Blacks were simply not offered the big money jobs in commercial radio or fancy hotels. Black bands had to be constantly on the road to earn income. Similarly, record companies often gave the best new songs to White performers, while people like Billie Holiday and Lester Young were given "second or third-rate songs, that they still managed to turn to gold for the record companies." [6]

In 1940 Young left the Basie band. He continued to record and play in various small combos, and moved to Los Angeles where his family, including his mother Lizetta, had settled. In 1943, he returned to the Basie band, but in 1944, at the height of World War II, he was drafted into the Army. Needless to say, Army life was not a good fit for the iconoclastic artist. Just as he had refused to change his style in the Henderson band years earlier, now he was refusing to cooperate with the military's attempts to transform Lester into Private Young. According to the court documents, marijuana was discovered on his person, and he freely admitted to being high. He was convicted and sentenced to a year of barracks detention and a dishonorable discharge. However, Gene Ramey and Jo Jones, both close friends of Young's in the Basie band, maintained that Young had been framed by an officer who had become enraged after discovering that Young's wife was White. They also said that Young had been severely beaten while in detention and that his coordination afterwards suffered as a result. Young's biographer also raises the possibility that Young had deliberately gotten into trouble to avoid being sent to the European front. [7]

After his dishonorable discharge, Young began touring and recording again, although he began to be portrayed by some critics as in decline both artistically and personally. However, other critics, especially in the Black press, as well as his fellow musicians, continued to praise his work in the highest terms. He toured with Jazz at the Philharmonic. He married again, fathered two children and bought a house in Queens, NY, not far from Louis Armstrong. He settled into family life but continued to tour and record. Lester published articles defending bebop as a natural evolution in music and claimed that his own band played "relaxed bop."

Through recording and club dates, Young's fame and reputation in the late 1940s were greater than ever. However, by the mid-1950s his health was noticeably declining. He was never a user of hard drugs, but he did develop a severe alcohol addiction, an occupational hazard of working in clubs. Although by this time some musicians were acknowledging Young's declining musical ability, he continued to be universally respected and even revered by all the sidemen he played with. Lester passed away on the Ides of March, 1959, a week after recording his last album, "Lester Young in Paris." His funeral was attended by family members, including his mother Lizetta, many jazz greats, friends, and legions of fans.

Musicians who acknowledge Young's influence include Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Sonny Stitt, and Stan Getz, to name a few. According to Harry Belafonte, Lester Young was the one who first encouraged him to try singing. The Beat generation writers such as Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac lionized Young as the embodiment of artistic integrity and through their writings they helped to expand the legend of Lester Young beyond the world of jazz musicians and aficionados. He was truly a unique individual, spoken highly of by all musicians who played with him.

The next time you say "That's cool", think of Lester.

Lester Leaps In: The Life and Times of Lester "Pres" Young. Douglas Henry Daniels Beacon Press, 2002.

Recommended Recordings:
Pres and Teddy (with Teddy Wilson) 
Lester Young and Billie Holiday – A Musical Romance 
Shoe Shine Boy
Lester Leaps In (Count Basie and Kansas City 7)

Recommended Videos:
Jammin The Blues – 1944 short film
Wayne Shorter meets Lester YoungFunny story told by Wayne Shorter about his chance encounter with Lester
Fine and Mellow – poignant video. Lester's last recording (on a TV special) with Billie Holiday shortly before his death

[1] Daniels p. 369
[2] Daniels p. 168]
[3] Daniels p. 61
[4] Daniels p. 176
[5] Daniels p. 180
[6] Daniels p. 209
[7] Daniels p. 263