Lester Young - Biography
By Stuart Kremsky
Lester Young was the original hipster. No one talked like he did, no one dressed like he did, and surely no one at the time played the tenor saxophone like he did. When the tall red-haired man in the flashy suit and sunglasses held his tenor up in the air, cocked it to the side and started to blow, everyone paid attention. Young was by all accounts a gentle man, who valued softness in all things, and his tone reflects his personality. With a sound that seemed to float over bar lines with a singularly light and pure tone, Young charted his own course as a soloist in spite of much opposition to his unique style. Eventually that sound would be cherished by new generations of musicians who looked to him as a giant of the saxophone. Gunther Schuller, in his study of The Swing Era, writes that “in terms of a revolutionary and lasting effect on several generations of jazz players, it is an incontrovertible fact that Lester was the most influential artist after Armstrong and before Charlie Parker.”
Lester Willis Young was born into a musical family in Woodville, Mississippi, on August 27, 1909. He was raised in New Orleans, living with his mother and two siblings. His father was an itinerant musician, who the youngster didn’t know until he was around 10, when the family moved to Minneapolis. Lester started playing drums in the family band, where he also picked up an alto saxophone. In an oral history he recorded years later, Young recalled that “I’d get close to my sister when she was playing and I’d pick out the parts...” At some point in his mid-teens, Young was embarrassed into learning how to read music. Music archivist and reissue producer Michael Brooks has observed that Young’s “passionate belief in himself and his refusal to knuckle under to his detractors” were already evident.
Young continued to tour with his father’s group during the late Twenties, playing across the Midwest and the Southwest. Tired of racial discrimination, Young left the band in Phoenix, Arizona, when his father proposed yet another summer tour of the South. He next surfaced in Salina, Kansas, where he gave up the drums for good. He joined Art Bronson's Bostonians playing alto sax around 1928, and soon switched to tenor sax. “As soon as I got my mouth ‘round it, I knew it was for me. The alto was a little too high.” Young worked with the Bronson group on and off for several years, briefly rejoining the family band as well. When the Bronson band split up in Wichita, Young returned to Minneapolis where he worked steadily until he joined Bennie Moten’s Blue Devils in 1932. The group played for a time in Oklahoma, then hit the road for a grueling series tours that ended up with the band disintegrating in West Virginia after their equipment had been impounded. Broke, Young was forced to hop freights back to the Midwest.
Young then joined the legendary cornetist King Oliver’s band. Working with Oliver, by then past his prime, was rough on Young, and after touring with the band for about a year he went back to Minneapolis. He later recalled that “Earl Hines had eyes for me, but I wanted to join Count Basie, ‘cause I heard him on the radio.” Young sent a telegram to Basie, saying that he didn’t like the current tenor player, and offering his services. Basie, who’d already heard about Young, sent him a ticket to join the group in Kansas City late in 1933. Basie later recollected that “I’d never heard anyone like him before. He was a stylist with a different sound...To be honest with you I didn’t much like it at first.” The main influence on Young’s playing was Frankie Trumbauer, the C-melody saxophonist closely associated with Bix Beiderbecke. Young explained that in the period before he’d heard Coleman Hawkins, he “had to make a decision between [Trumbauer] and Jimmy Dorsey...I knew of all the guys who were telling stories those two had it.”
By the time Young joined Basie, he was familiar with Hawkins, and when the master was scheduled to be in town with Fletcher Henderson, Young made sure he was in the audience. As it happened, Hawkins was inexplicably absent, and Young ended up sitting in to play Hawkins’ parts. Hawkins did show up in town a few days later, and in an all-night jam session in Kansas City in December 1933, he got the first real challenge to his dominance on the tenor. Pianist Mary Lou Williams was woken up at 4 a.m. by Ben Webster, who told her that Hawkins had his shirt off, “still blowing, trying to compete with Ben and Herschel [Evans] and Lester. Lester always took about five choruses to get warmed up, but no could handle him in a cutting contest.”
When Hawkins left the Henderson band and sailed for Europe in the spring of 1934, he recommended Young as his replacement. What should have been a triumph for Young turned into a seriously uncomfortable situation. Young stayed with the Hendersons when he went to New York, and as he later told the story, “Fletcher’s wife would...play me Coleman Hawkins records...and she’d ask me ‘Lester, why can’t you play like this?’.” It wasn’t just Mrs. Henderson that didn’t like his sound, it was the whole band. Young only lasted about ten days. Armed with a letter from Henderson declaring that he hadn’t been fired, Young joined Andy Kirk’s band in Kansas City. He also played with local groups in Minneapolis before getting back together with Basie back in Kansas City in 1936.
New York jazz critic and scene-maker John Hammond tried to sign the Basie group for Columbia, but Decca had beaten him to it. Determined to get the band’s sound on record as soon as possible, Hammond arranged for a recording session in November 1936 featuring a quintet with Young, Basie, bassist Walter Page, trumpeter Carl Smith and drummer Jo Jones, the erstwhile leaders of Jones-Smith Incorporated, as the label read. The songs from this first session, the instrumentals “Shoe Shine Boy” and “Oh, Lady Be Good,” and Jimmy Rushing’s vocal features “Evenin’” and “Boogie Woogie,” are all gems. Basie later commented that “we just had a nice little ball on the session.” Young was 27 and in a recording studio for the first time, but with a full and varied career already behind him. Loren Schoenberg, in his notes for Classic Columbia, OKeh, and Vocalion Lester Young with Count Basie (1936-1940) (2008 - Mosaic), pointed out that “what for us is the very beginning of his oeuvre is at the same time several steps in his own musical evolution.”
Young remained in the Basie band for four years, dueling with his great friend, Texas tenorman Herschel Evans, as the band toured from coast to coast, made network broadcasts, and recorded for Decca. Young occasionally recorded on clarinet, and what Schoenberg terms his “zen-like clarinet playing” was prominent in a 1938 Kansas City Six session for Commodore that also featured trumpeter Buck Clayton. Interwoven with the Basie records from 1937 through 1940 are sessions held under the nominal leadership of Teddy Wilson and often featuring vocals by Billie Holiday. Young and Holiday became one of the most celebrated partnerships in jazz, and their magical rapport is evident on songs like “I Must Have That Man,” “I’ll Get By,” and “He’s Funny That Way”. Young named her “Lady Day,” and she returned the favor by bestowing the title “Pres,” for president of the saxophone.
Young, who’d never had more than two choruses to blow on while he was with Basie, left the group in late 1940. He free-lanced for a while in New York, then went to Los Angeles to co-lead a group with his brother Lee Young on drums in 1941 and 1942. Young recorded his first session as a leader in July 1942 in a trio with Nat “King” Cole on piano and Red Callendar on bass. After dissolving the partnership with his brother, Young played briefly with a group led by saxophonist Al Sears. In December 1943, Young casually rejoined the Basie orchestra in New York. Since this second tenure took place during the musician union’s recording ban, there is little recorded evidence apart from air-checks and material recorded for the U.S. Army’s V-Disc program. Young was quite busy throughout 1944. Besides his Basie commitment, he also recorded with Johnny Guarnieri and the Kansas City Six, and did his own quartet date for Savoy. He was in Los Angeles with Basie in September 1944 when he and his iconic pork pie hat appeared in the short film Jammin’ The Blues, produced by Norman Granz.
Just after the filming, the draft caught up with Young, and he was inducted into the Army in the fall of 1944. His experience in the service was, in Leonard Feather’s words, “a psychological disaster.” After stays in an Army hospital and a detention barracks, his military career ended with a dishonorable discharge in late 1945. Young soon made his way to Los Angeles, where he worked both as a featured soloist with Jazz At The Philharmonic and as a bandleader in clubs. His first recordings after leaving the Army came out on the Aladdin label, including “D.B. Blues” and “Lester Blows Again.” In early 1946, he played alongside Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker in a Los Angeles concert, getting a first-hand taste of the new music that had developed while he’d been in the Army. By the time of his final Aladdin sessions, organized by Feather in New York in December 1947, Young’s generally laconic attitude made for what the producer terms a “less than comfortable afternoon, mainly because Pres didn’t care to discuss” practically anything about the music. (The Complete Aladdin Recordings of Lester Young was issued by Blue Note in 1995.)
Oppressed by the marginal living conditions for jazz musicians and disturbed by a racist society in which some of his white imitators were more successful than he was, Young began a lengthy decline into malnutrition, alcoholism, and beginning in 1955, several hospitalizations. Somehow, the music continued. For a time in the early Fifties, Young led a series of working bands, including trumpeter Jesse Drakes, pianists John Lewis or Wynton Kelly, bassist Gene Ramey, and drummer Jo Jones. He made several trips to Europe with Jazz At The Philharmonic between rounds of club dates and concerts in on the East Coast. In addition to his recordings for Verve, notably the Jazz Giants ‘56 and Lester Young/Teddy Wilson quartet dates of January 1956, many of Young’s broadcasts and club dates have since been issued. Young went on a national tour with JATP in 1957, recording with Count Basie at the Newport Jazz Festival. Late in the year, he appeared on the CBS television program The Sound Of Jazz, taking an eloquently poignant solo as part of an all-star band backing Billie Holiday on “Fine and Mellow.” By 1958, Young was living in a down-and-out hotel overlooking Birdland, listening to pop singers and staring out the window. A new doctor and girl friend were helping him regain his health, and late in the year, he was well enough to attend a birthday tribute held in his honor at Birdland.
Young went to Paris in January 1959 for a series of club dates, but his drinking was once again out of control. Because his hotel in France wouldn’t allow him to cook in his room, he basically stopped eating, and barely managed to get back to New York on March 13. He died two days later, in the early morning of March 15, 1959, in his hotel room.
There are a number of books on Young’s life and music. Jan Evensmo issued The Tenor Saxophone And Clarinet Of Lester Young, 1936-1949 as Volume 5 of his Jazz Solography series in 1977. Frank Buchmann-Moller wrote a biography, You Just Fight For Your Life: The Story of Lester Young (1990), and compiled You Got To Be Original Man! The Music of Lester Young (1990), a guide to Young’s recorded solos. Lewis Porter wrote Lester Young (1985), an academic appraisal, and later compiled A Lester Young Reader (1991). British jazz author and musician Dave Gelly combined a brief biography with musical commentary in his Being Prez: The Life and Music of Lester Young (2007).