Saturday, 31 March 2012

JAZZ ICONS #1: Lester Young

Blue Lester, Savoy LP, c. 1950

The trouble with most musicians today is that they are copycats.  Of course, you have to start playing like someone else.  You have a model, or a teacher, and you learn all that he can show you.  But then you start playing for yourself.  Show them that you're an individual.  And I can count those who are doing that today on the fingers of one hand.
6 May 1949  

He played the tenor saxophone, tilting it at a forty-five degree angle when he blew so he wouldn't be mistaken for Coleman Hawkins, one of his greatest rivals on the same instrument throughout the 1930s.  He joined the Count Basie Orchestra in 1936 and played on many of its most memorable recordings –– including Honeysuckle Rose, Lady Be Good and Taxi War Dance before leaving the band in 1940 to pursue what can only be described as an artistically if not always financially successful solo career.

He also featured on many of Billie Holiday's finest small group recordings, including the sublime This Year's Kisses and Mean To Me, and gave her the nickname 'Lady Day,' a tribute she returned by calling him 'The President' a moniker the other musicians he played with invariably shortened to 'Pres' (pronounced 'Prez').  He wore flat little porkpie hats, stylishly-cut clothes and once threw a brand new pair of shoes in the trashcan because he said their leather soles felt too hard against his feet.  

'It had to be soft and gentle,' a former bandmate of Young's once remarked to jazz critic Leonard Feather, 'or Pres wanted no part of it.'

This Year's Kisses (1937)  

BILLIE HOLIDAY [vocal]  LESTER YOUNG [tenor saxophone] 
TEDDY WILSON [piano]  BUCK CLAYTON [trumpet]
BENNY GOODMAN [clarinet]  FREDDIE GREEN [guitar]
WALTER PAGE [bass]  JO JONES [drums]
Brunswick Records single, 1937
The opening saxophone solo is performed by Young   

He referred to himself in the third person (he would say 'Pres is splitting' when he left a room and was supposedly the first musician to use the term 'bread' to describe money) and called white people 'Oxford Greys' or simply 'greys,' often choosing to walk deliberately out of his way in order to avoid having to speak to them.  He would sit alone in a corner for hours sometimes without saying a word to anybody, then climb up on the bandstand and blow audiences away with the unprecedented beauty of his playing.  He drank so much gin and bourbon in his later years that he frequently forgot to eat and had to be hospitalized on more than one occasion because he was found to be malnourished and severely dehydrated.

He was also a musical genius whose fluid phrasing and deceptively light tone came to define the concept of 'cool jazz' long before its so-called birth in the early 1950s.  He influenced almost every major tenor saxophonist who came after him, including Dexter Gordon, Paul Quinichette (who was nicknamed 'Vice Pres' because he modeled his style so closely on Young's) and Stan Getz.  Getz even went so far as to say that if he hadn't had Young to copy from when he first started out, he might never have played anything worth hearing on the saxophone at all.   

In 1944 Young was drafted into the army, where he was persecuted by a white officer who noticed that he carried around a photograph of a white woman in his wallet –– a white woman who also happened to be the black saxophonist's second wife.  He deserted his post, but returned voluntarily after twenty-four hours, where he was promptly charged with going AWOL and locked up in the base stockade.  Except for a few visits to the hospital, where he found some relief from the brutality of his situation by drinking liquid cocaine smuggled in to him by a sympathetic orderly, he was to remain behind bars until he received a dishonorable discharge in the summer of 1945.


All of Me (1956)     

LESTER YOUNG [tenor saxophone]  TEDDY WILSON [piano]   
GENE RAMEY [bass]   JO JONES [drums]
From the 1956 Verve LP Pres and Teddy

Luckily, Young's playing wasn't affected by his harrowing military experiences.  He returned to the studio in the late 1940s, cutting more than a dozen sides for the Los Angeles-based Aladdin label that confounded fans who weren't prepared to accept the idea that his style had evolved into something new while still remaining quintessentially 'Presidential.'  During the 1950s, which were arguably his leanest years creatively, he appeared on several outstanding duet albums with Oscar Peterson, Harry 'Sweets' Edison and the equally gifted Teddy Wilson.  He was also a regular participant in Norman Granz's popular Jazz at the Philharmonic tours, where he was reunited with his old friend Billie Holiday and occasionally had the chance to perform on-stage with her again.  
By 1958, however, his drinking had begun to spiral out of control.  A trip to Paris – a city he'd enjoyed visiting as a member of the Basie organization in the 1930s – proved to be the beginning of the end not only of his career but also of his life.  It took him a week to find the strength to board the plane that would take him back to New York and once he got there he resumed what had now become a sad but all too familiar routine.  He checked into a seedy hotel directly across the street from Birdland – at that time the most famous jazz club in the city –– and drank himself senseless while listening to the same records by Frank Sinatra and Dick Haymes over and over again.  This was what he was doing the night before he died on 15 March 1959.  He was forty-nine years old.    

Young's contribution to jazz is immeasurable.  Along with Coleman Hawkins, he helped to make tenor saxophone –– which until their arrival had usually been dismissed as little more than a novelty instrument by the older generation of New Orleans-trained musicians – the dominant sound of the music from the 1930s well into the bop and post-bop eras.  But it was above all Young's elegance, his air of world-weary romanticism and his much imitated but never equaled lightness of tone that made him stand out as a musician who could stir the heart and make poetry out of the simplest phrase by remembering and applying just one simple rule –– technique alone is never any kind of substitute for genuine, heartfelt emotion.

Fine and Mellow (1959)    
LESTER YOUNG [tenor saxophone] + BILLIE HOLIDAY [vocal] & others.   
This was their final appearance together.      
Both died a few weeks after this program was recorded.   

Click HERE to listen to more great music by LESTER YOUNG.     

Special thanks to everyone who takes the time to upload music to YouTube.  Your efforts are appreciated by music lovers everywhere.  

You might also enjoy:  
JAZZ ICONS #3: Andrew Hill  
JAZZ ICONS #4: Jack Teagarden
BENTLEY RUMBLE Blues for Eddie Clay (2014) 

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