In his 1985 biography on Lester Young, entitled Lester Young, Lewis Porter describes Young as a man of few words, who often “spoke through silence” (Porter P.4). Young’s language was one of his own creation, wrapped in “exquisite loneliness” and passed from musician to musician as treasures of wisdom and wit (Porter P.29). “When Lester plays, he almost seems to be singing, you can hear the words,” Billie Holiday wrote in her autobiography Lady Sings the Blues (Holiday P.112). Letting his music tell his story, Lester’s tone was as cool as the persona he created; a sophisticated tone that was a contrast from the players of his time. Dubbed “The Prez” by Billie Holiday, Lester Young is a jazz legend, though his influence is often overlooked by modern fans. He is called “one of the most influential saxophonists ever to play jazz,” by the Penguin Guide to Jazz (Cook and Morton P.1712). Young’s music marks a transition in jazz from swing to bebop, with the hipster jazz ethos of the fifties and sixties firmly rooted in his unique sense of fashion, his eccentric linguistics, and, most importantly, his thoughtful, vocal, introspective music.
Born in 1909 in Mississippi, Lester Young grew up in a musical family. He studied violin, trumpet, and drums before he discovered the alto saxophone. He claims to have, “just picked up the mother and started playing it” (Porter P.12). He performed in the family band, with his father as the stern taskmaster. They played regularly in New Orleans and Minneapolis, before Young went off on his own in the late 1920’s (after refusing to tour the South where Jim Crow laws were still in effect). Settling in Kansas City, Young quickly made a name for himself, and was asked to join the Count Basie Band; a band he would play with on and off for his entire career.
By the late 1920’s, Young had switched to the tenor saxophone, preferring the lower, mellower tone. Lewis Porter dedicates an entire chapter to Lester’s distinctive sound and the way it evolved throughout the years, moving from an articulated, clean and round tone, to a soft, heavy, more breathy vocal tone. He often played behind the beat, experimenting with phrasing much like a singer. By the 1940’s, Young had left the Basie band (although he would return several times), and a heaviness entered his sound; growing darker with his personality and his deteriorating physical and psychological health.
Young’s playing was also effected by a traumatic time in the military. He was court-martialed for drug charges and served one year in detention barracks, inspiring his composition entitled “DB Blues.” Despite being dishonorably discharged from the military in 1945, Young began a prolific time recording with Norman Granz, Nat “King” Cole, Ben Webster, Billie Holiday, and Count Basie. Although many critics argue that Young’s playing deteriorated in his later years due to his self destructive habits, many recording prove otherwise. What he lacked in technical prowess, he often made up for with incredibly emotional performances.
Thanks to the Manieri grant, Anacortes Public Library has an extensive collection of Lester Young’s recordings. Check out the CD ‘Lester Young Trio’ to hear some of the most incredible jazz ever recorded. ‘The complete Aladdin Recordings of Lester Young’ offers further exploration of Young’s incredibly introspective playing. We also have in our collection, ‘The Lester Young Story,’ which highlights most of Young’s career, from his work with Basie, to his small band recordings of the later 1940’s. Read Geoff Dyer’s ‘But Beautiful,’ for a prose take on Lester Young, and others who shaped jazz music. For a technical breakdown of Young’s playing, read Lewis Porter’s in-depth biography, ‘Lester Young.’
Young’s influence can be heard in a variety of artists, from Dexter Gordon to Charles Mingus. Mingus even composed an elegy to Young entitled “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” (referring to Young’s preferred chapeau) in 1959, just months after Young’s death. Young’s impact on Jazz is immeasurable, and the Manieri collection offers an amazing chance to explore his work.