Lester Young Biography

Lester Willis Young, 27 August 1909, Woodville, Mississippi, USA, d. 15 March 1959, New York City, New York, USA. Born into a musical family, Young was taught several instruments by his father. As a child he played drums in the family’s band, but around 1928 he quit the group and switched to tenor saxophone. His first engagements on this instrument were with Art Bronson, in Phoenix, Arizona. He stayed with Bronson until 1930, with a brief side trip to play again with the family, then worked in and around Minneapolis, Minnesota, with various bands. In the spring of 1932 he joined the Original Blue Devils, under the leadership of Walter Page, and was one of several members of the band who joined Bennie Moten in Kansas City towards the end of 1933. During the next few years Young played in the bands of Moten, George E. Lee, King Oliver, Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson, Andy Kirk and others. In 1936 he rejoined Basie, with whom he remained for the next four years, touring, broadcasting and recording. He also recorded in small groups directed by Teddy Wilson and others and appeared on several classic record dates, backing Billie Holiday, with whom he forged a special and lasting relationship. (She nicknamed him ‘Pres’ or ‘Prez’, for president, while he bestowed on her the name ‘Lady Day’.)

In the early 40s Young played in, and sometimes led, small groups in the Los Angeles area alongside his brother, Lee Young, and musicians such as Red Callender, Nat ‘King’ Cole and Al Sears. During this period he returned briefly to the Basie band, making some excellent recordings, and also worked with Dizzy Gillespie. Late in 1944 he was conscripted into the US Army but was discharged in mid-summer the following year, having spent part of his military service in hospital and part in an army prison. In the mid-40s he was filmed by Gjon Mili in the classic jazz short, Jammin’ The Blues, a venture which was co-produced by Norman Granz. At this time he also joined Granz’s Jazz At The Philharmonic package, remaining with the organization for a number of years. He also led small groups for club and record dates, toured the USA and visited Europe. From the mid-40s onwards Young’s health was poor and in the late 50s his physical decline became swift. He continued to record and make concert and festival appearances and was featured on television’s The Sound Of Jazz in 1957. In these final years his deteriorating health was exacerbated by a drinking problem, and some close observers suggest that towards the end he lost the will to live. He died on 15 March 1959.

One of the seminal figures in jazz history and a major influence in creating the musical atmosphere in which bop could flourish, Young’s early and late career was beset by critical bewilderment. Only his middle period appears to have earned unreserved critical acclaim. In recent years, however, thanks in part to a more enlightened body of critical opinion, allied to perceptive biographies (by Dave Gelly and Lewis Porter), few observers now have anything other than praise for this remarkable artist’s entire output. In the early 30s, when Young appeared on the wider jazz scene, the tenor saxophone was regarded as a forceful, barrel-toned, potentially dominating instrument. In the early years of jazz none of the saxophone family had met with favour and only the clarinet among the reed instruments maintained a front-line position. This position had been challenged, almost single-handedly, by Coleman Hawkins, who changed perceptions of the instrument and its role in jazz. Despite his authority, Hawkins failed to oust the trumpet from its dominating role. Nevertheless, his example spawned many imitators who attempted to replicate his rich and resonant sound. When Young appeared, favouring a light, acerbic, dry tone, he was in striking contrast to the majestic Hawkins, and many people, both musicians and audiences, disliked what they heard. Only the more perceptive listeners of the time, and especially younger musicians, heard in Young’s floating melodic style a distinctive and revolutionary approach to jazz.

The solos Young recorded with the Basie band included many which, for all their brevity - some no more than eight bars long - display an astonishing talent in full and magnificent flight. On his first record date, on 9 October 1936, made by a small group drawn from the Basie band under the name of Jones-Smith Inc., he plays with what appears at first hearing to be startling simplicity. Despite this impression, the performances, especially of ‘Shoe Shine Swing’ and ‘Lady Be Good’, are undisputed masterpieces seldom equalled, let alone bettered (perhaps not even by Young himself). He recorded many outstanding solos - with the full Basie band on ‘Honeysuckle Rose’, ‘Taxi War Dance’ and ‘Every Tub’; with the small group, the Kansas City Seven, on ‘Dickie’s Dream’ and ‘Lester Leaps In’. On all of these recordings, Young’s solos clearly indicate that, for all their emotional depths, a massive intellectual talent is at work.

In 1940 he made some excellent records with a small band assembled under the nominal leadership of Benny Goodman which featured Basie, Buck Clayton and Charlie Christian and was clearly at ease in such illustrious company. His sessions with Billie Holiday belong to a higher level again. The empathy displayed by these two frequently-troubled people is always remarkable and at times magical. Almost any of their recordings would serve as an example, with ‘Me, Myself And I’, ‘Mean To Me’, ‘When You’re Smiling’, ‘Foolin’ Myself’ and ‘This Year’s Kisses’ being particularly rewarding examples of their joint and separate artistry. Even late in their lives, after they had seen little of one another for several years (theirs was an extremely close although almost certainly platonic relationship), their appearance on the television show The Sound Of Jazz produced a moment of astonishing emotional impact. In a performance of ‘Fine And Mellow’, just after Holiday has sung, Young plays a brief solo of achingly fragile tenderness that is packed with more emotion than a million words could convey.

After Young left the army his playing style was demonstrably different, a fact which led many to declare that his suffering at the hands of the military had broken his artistic will. While Young’s time in the army was clearly unpleasant, and the life was something for which he was physically and psychologically unsuited, it seems unlikely that the changes in his playing were directly attributable to his army service. On numerous record sessions he demonstrated that his talent was not damaged by his spell in the stockade. His playing had changed but the differences were almost certainly a result of changes in the man himself. He had matured, moved on, and his music had too. Those critics who like their musicians to be trapped in amber were unprepared for the new Lester Young. Adding to the confusion was the fact that, apart from the faithful Hawkins-style devotees, most other tenor players in jazz were imitating the earlier Lester. His first recordings after leaving the army, which include ‘DB Blues’ and ‘These Foolish Things’, are not the work of a spent spirit but have all the elegance and style of a consummate master, comfortably at one with his world. A 1956 session with Teddy Wilson, on which Young is joined by Roy Eldridge and an old comrade from his Basie days, Jo Jones, is another striking example of a major figure who is still in full command of all his earlier powers; and a long-overlooked set of records made at about the same time with the Bill Potts Trio, a backing group that accompanied him during an engagement in a bar in Washington, D.C., show him to be as musically alert and inventive as ever.

A withdrawn, moody figure with a dry and slightly anarchic sense of humour, Young perpetuated his own mythology during his lifetime, partly through a personal use of words which he developed into a language of his own (among other things he coined the use of ‘bread’ to denote money). His stoicism and a marked preference for his own company - or, at best, for a favoured few who shared his mistrustful view of life - set him apart even from the jazz musicians who admired and sometimes revered him. It is impossible to overstate Young’s importance in the development of jazz. From the standpoint of the early years of the new century, when the tenor saxophone is the dominant instrument in jazz, it is easy to imagine that this is the way it always was. That the tenor has come to hold the place it does is largely a result of Young’s influence, which inspired so many young musicians to adopt the instrument or to turn those who already played it into new directions. Most of the developments in bop and post-bop owe their fundamentals to Young’s concern for melody and the smooth, flowing lines with which he transposed his complex musical thoughts into beautiful, articulate sounds. Although other important tenor saxophonists have come, and in some cases gone, during the five decades since Lester Young died, few have had the impact of this unusual, introspective, sensitive and musically profound genius of jazz.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.