THE DOZENS: LESTER YOUNG AT 100 by Michael J. West

It’s hard to imagine what it was like. Today, New York City is so entrenched as the jazz scene of record that the very notion of another scene rising up to challenge its primacy seems laughable. And it’s even harder in this eclectic, ever-expansive musical climate to conceive of a world in which one man could dictate the sound and feel that his instrument should have.



         Lester Young (artwork by Merryl Jaye)


Yet in the late 1930s, New York had a formidable rival in the Depression-era boomtown of Kansas City, Missouri. And out of that city’s blues- and rhythm-drenched aesthetic came the melodic, airborne sound of Lester Young’s tenor saxophone, which also introduced new ideas about harmony and rhythm and overnight became the gold standard of how the sax was supposed to be played.

Born 100 years ago this week, Lester Willis Young displays his impact everywhere. For every obvious disciple (Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Paul Desmond) there’s a musician who at first sounds nothing like the man Billie Holiday nicknamed The President or “Prez,” but upon closer inspection is heavily indebted (Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Marion Brown). Not to mention his curious lingo, his fashion sense, and his distinct cockeyed playing stance, all of which were widely copied too: one writer places Young on a “Mount Rushmore of hipness.”

Yet there’s something else unique about Lester Young. Most of jazz’s greatest players did groundbreaking work as leaders in their own right. But as revolutionary as Young was, the saxophonist produced nearly all of his major work as a sideman. He made his reputation as the featured soloist in the Count Basie Orchestra, graduated to legend as an accompanist for Billie Holiday, and even in his small-group sessions hid behind leaderless monikers like “Kansas City Six.” Young’s music under his own name was still brilliant—sometimes among his very best—but never as earth-shattering as the records he made with the Count or Lady Day. Still, there’s no question that Young was a leader in his jazz universe, not a follower; like many geniuses, he needed partners, other great talents to challenge and complement him. (That even held true in his early solo performances, where Prez encountered an eager and accomplished young pianist by the name of Nat Cole.)

As a sideman or leader, every phase of Young’s career had merit, if not superb music. Below are a dozen of the most important or representative works from each era from his first recording session in 1936 to shortly before his alcoholism-related death in 1959. Happy birthday, Mr. President.


Count Basie (featuring Lester Young): Oh, Lady Be Good

Track

Oh, Lady Be Good

Group

Jones-Smith Incorporated (Count Basie)

CD

The Essential Count Basie, Vol. 1 (Sony Jazz 4600612)

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Musicians:

Count Basie (piano), Lester Young (tenor sax), Walter Page (bass), Jo Jones (drums),

Carl Smith (trumpet)

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Composed by George & Ira Gershwin

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Recorded: Chicago, November 9, 1936

Albumcoverscbasiev1

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

A sort of dry run for the recently signed, but not-yet-recorded Count Basie Orchestra, the Jones-Smith session unleashed what could be called the Lester Young Effect. The tenor sax had been hard-driven and cutting in the preceding era of jazzthe world according to Coleman Hawkinsbut Young, in his first time at the recording microphone, sounded light and carefully plotted without sacrificing the instruments muscle. In truth, Youngs is just one of many innovations heard on Oh, Lady Be Good: Basies soft-spoken minimalism and Jones hi-hat-intensive drumming were also new ground. Still, its hard to get past Lester, weaving and bobbing his way through both comps and a featured solo like a helium balloon in the breeze. Jazz would never be the same.

Reviewer: Michael J. West


Count Basie: Honeysuckle Rose

Track

Honeysuckle Rose

Artist

Count Basie (piano)

CD

The Complete Decca Recordings (GRP 112)

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Musicians:

Count Basie (piano),

Buck Clayton, Joe Keyes, Carl Smith (trumpets), George Hunt, Dan Minor (trombones), Caughey Roberts, Herschel Evans, Lester Young, Jack Washington (reeds), Claude Williams (guitar), Walter Page (bass), Jo Jones (drums)

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Composed by Fats Waller and Andy Razaf

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Recorded: New York, January 21, 1937

Count_basie_decca

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

With Walter Page and Jo Jones standing firm behind him, Count Basies two stride piano choruses at the opening of Honeysuckle Rose tie the aggressive rhythms of Kansas City to the swinging life of Harlem. Then come the Counts men, amping up the infectious upbeat and bringing in Midwestern riffs that sound suspiciously like Tea for Two. (The most danceable Tea for Two youve ever heard, that is.) Meantime, Lester Young demonstrates that his ethereal, hollow sound is as capable of charging through the swingers as it is of floating through the ballads and mid-tempos. Listening 70 years later, we can also hear how his solos rewrote the saxophone vocabulary: There are phrases in Youngs single chorus that were later borrowed and developed by Paul Gonsalves, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, all the way through Branford Marsalis and Joshua Redmanand this inside less than 40 seconds of music. No wonder they called him the President.

Reviewer: Michael J. West


Kansas City Six: Way Down Yonder In New Orleans

Track

Way Down Yonder In New Orleans

Artist

Lester Young (tenor sax, clarinet)

CD

The "Kansas City" Sessions (Commodore 9585)

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Musicians:

Lester Young (tenor sax, clarinet), Buck Clayton (trumpet), Eddie Durham (guitar), Freddie Green (guitar), Walter Page (bass), Jo Jones (drums).

Composed by Joe Turner Layton, Jr. and Henry Creamer

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Recorded: New York, September 15, 1938

Albumcoverlesteryoung-kansascitysessions

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

Eddie Durhams arrangement for this 1922 standard is such a perfect one for the swing era that it should be in every jazz education curriculum in the world. But the fairly simple arrangement is also a deceptive one: trumpet and clarinet play the head together over acoustic guitar, bass, and drums, but then tenor saxophone and electric guitar erupt in the solos. Doesnt that make seven, not six? The answer, of course, is that Lester Young plays both sax and clarinet on the record, and its no surprise to hear that his clarinet is as distinctive as the tenorbreathy, soft, high, and endlessly lyrical. Interestingly, while Youngs originality continues to flourish in his tenor solo (who knew relaxed rhythms and slightly displaced harmonies could sound so daring?), Claytons relentless melodic imagination gives him quite a run for his money. Durham, here playing one of the first electric guitar solos on record, is no slouch on the harmonies, either. Nonetheless, theres something special about hearing that one of the great instrumental masters had actually mastered two instruments.

Reviewer: Michael J. West


Teddy Wilson (with Billie Holiday): Say It With A Kiss

Track

Say It With A Kiss

Group

Teddy Wilson & HIs Orchestra

CD

The Quintessential Billie Holiday, Vol. 8 (Columbia 45449)

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Musicians:

Billie Holiday (vocals), Teddy Wilson (piano),

Harry James (trumpet), Benny Morton (trombone), Benny Carter, Edgar Sampson (alto saxes), Lester Young, Herschel Evans (tenor saxes), Al Casey (guitar), Water Page (bass), Jo Jones (drums)

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Composed by Johnny Mercer & Harry Warren

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Recorded: New York, November 9, 1938

Quintessential_billie_holiday_8_1

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

If there be any doubt that Prez and Lady Day were musical soulmates, one listen to their work together on Say It With A Kiss should settle the question. Holidays subtlety and velvet tone on her vocal chorus echo through Youngs eight bars; even with Harry James brilliant golden exclamations interpolating, the two cant help but to be of a piece. What Young cant replicate, however, is the sly, winking quality in Holidays deliverywhich is only augmented by her reshaping of the melody. Instead, he plays out the tunes fundamental sweetness on his axe, thus complementing Lady Day even as he reinforces her. Everything, in other words, that soulmates are supposed to do.

Reviewer: Michael J. West


Count Basie: Dark Rapture

Track

Dark Rapture

Artist

Count Basie (piano)

CD

The Complete Decca Recordings (GRP 112)

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Musicians:

Count Basie (piano),

Buck Clayton, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Ed Lewis (trumpets), Dicky Wells, Dan Minor, Benny Morton (trombones), Earl Warren, Herschel Evans, Lester Young, Jack Washington (reeds), Freddie Green (guitar), Walter Page (bass), Jo Jones (drums), Helen Humes (vocals)

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Composed by Benny Goodman, Manny Kurtz & Edgar Sampson

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Recorded: New York, November 16, 1938

Count_basie_decca

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

Dark Rapture is a taut showpiece for singer Helen Humes that ranks among the glossiest productions of the early Basie years. Not coincidentally, its also among the least typical: There are no riffs, no blues, the call-and-response lines are reduced to short fills, and though Basie is listed as pianist, his trademark tinkling is nowhere to be heard. There are, however, two factors that inject some character into the proceedings: Humes exquisite control and enthusiasm, which together allow for some remarkable vocal gymnasticscheck out her reading of the final line,The thrill that fills the still of a Congo nightand eighteen smoky bars by Lester Young that add a mysterious, noir-ish dimension to an already dark and dramatic performance. (In essence, he scores the scene in which Bogart would walk into the crowded but dimly lit nightclub and spy Lauren Bacall on the dance floor; the only thing missing is the movie.) Kansas City blues it aint, but its intriguing nonetheless.

Reviewer: Michael J. West


Count Basie: Taxi War Dance

Track

Taxi War Dance

Group

Count Basie & His Orchestra

CD

Classic Columbia, Okeh & Vocalion [Sessions] (Mosaic 239)

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Musicians:

Count Basie (piano),

Buck Clayton, Shad Collins, Harry Edison, Ed Lewis (trumpets), Dan Minor, Benny Morton, Dicky Wells (trombones), Earle Warren, Buddy Tate, Lester Young, Jack Washington (reeds), Freddie Green (guitar), Walter Page (bass), Jo Jones (drums)

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Composed by Count Basie & Lester Young

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Recorded: New York, March 19, 1939

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Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Perhaps his finest moment on record, Young is probably also (mostly) responsible for Taxi War Dances very simple head arrangement, though he only gets half the composer credit. The first of his solos is particularly ingenious: It begins sounding like a cohesive and hyper-lyrical 12-bar blues, but soon reveals itself to be Willow Weep for Me changes. Throughout this and his later solos (trading fours with the full band and Basie), he remains light as a featheryet he continuously reaches outward with his phrasing and harmonies, and upward with his range until its genuinely hard to remember that Young isnt an alto player. Sandwiched in is a superlative solo by trombonist Dickie Wells that nearly equals Young for lyricism; it feels like an aside, however, in what is clearly Prezs show.

Reviewer: Michael J. West


Billie Holiday: Time On My Hands

Track

Time On My Hands

Artist

Billie Holiday (vocals)

CD

The Quintessential Billie Holiday, Vol. 8 (Columbia 45449)

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Musicians:

Billie Holiday (vocals),

Roy Eldridge (trumpet), Billy Bowen, Joe Eldridge, Kermit Scott, Lester Young (reeds), Teddy Wilson (piano), Freddie Green (guitar), Walter Page (bass), J.C. Heard (drums)

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Composed by Harold Adamson, Mack Gordon, & Vincent Youmans

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Recorded: New York, June 7, 1940

Quintessential_billie_holiday_8_1

Rating: 91/100 (learn more)

Although he was amongst the most celebrated jazz soloists of the era, Lester Young takes no solo on Time on My Hands. Instead, the song reveals him to be a remarkable accompanist. The song begins as a call-and-response duet between Holiday and trumpeter Eldridge, who gives an intro and then adds embellishments at the end of each of the singers lines. On the bridge, however, Eldridge falls away and Young enters: not with responses, but in countermelody. The weighty sadness with which Holiday already croons suddenly takes on new depth, with Youngs saxophone gently sobbing behind her. Hes also well off-mike, so that he amplifies Lady Days grief and sorrow without ever competing for the spotlight. Considering the stars he is competing against for space on the recordEldridge and Teddy Wilson, both of whom turn in sterling solosits quite a selfless act. Whether he did it for the record or for Billie, we cant saybut its irrelevant, since his backgrounds make both of them better.

Reviewer: Michael J. West


Nat King Cole & Lester Young: Tea For Two

Track

Tea For Two

Artist

Nat 'King' Cole (piano), Lester Young (tenor sax), and Red Callender (bass)

CD

Nat King Cole 1941 - 1943 (Classics 786)

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Musicians:

Nat 'King' Cole (piano), Lester Young (tenor sax), Red Callender (bass).

Composed by Irving Caesar & Vincent Youmans

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Recorded: Los Angeles, July 15, 1942

Nat_king_cole_classics

Rating: 91/100 (learn more)

Prezs Aladdin sessions often sound like they were made in somebodys garage, but theyre invaluable, documenting his music during a long reprieve from the Count Basie Orchestra. Tea for Two features two future stars, 26-year-old bassist Red Callender and 24-year-old pianist Nat King Cole, whose jobs are primarily to set Young up and stay out of his waythough Cole gets off a glittering syncopated variation. Youngs sax sound and phrasing, distinctive as ever through the static and tape hiss, is also as adventurous as ever. His mellow tones form startling abstractions that occasionally let a faint trace of the written melody through, but are simply on a higher level than his young journeymen are prepared for: When Young breaks into stop-time during the songs final third, Cole hardly knows what to do.

Surely its no coincidence that the Lester Young Effect would soon dominate the music in that city, first nourishing young L.A. players like Dexter Gordon, Buddy Collette and later Wardell Gray, then setting the standard for the scenes new cool style. Here we find Lester delivering it to their very doorsteps.

Reviewer: Michael J. West


Lester Young: I Want To Be Happy

Track

I Want To Be Happy

Artist

Nat 'King' Cole (piano), Lester Young (tenor sax), and Buddy Rich (drums)

CD

Lester Young Trio (Verve 314 521 650)

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Musicians:

Nat 'King' Cole (piano), Lester Young (tenor sax), Buddy Rich (drums).

Composed by Irving Caesar & Vincent Youmans

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Recorded: Los Angeles, March or April 1946

Albumcoverlesteryoungtrio

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

Many critics and writers still insist that Lester Youngs artistry was in decline when he was dishonorably discharged from the Army in December 1945. I Want to Be Happy begs to differ. From the bright introductory phrase of his first solo, its clear that Prez still has spring in his step and joy in his phrasing. The only difference to speak of is a breathier tone and a slightly lower pitchprobably more attributable to his use of a plastic reed than to a broken spiritand they dont stop him from swinging harder than ever before, especially on his second (closing) solo. No doubt hes helped along by the impeccable timing of Coles piano and the unswerving brilliance of Richs drums. Despite his revolution in the 30s, it was this postwar period that would be Youngs most successful, and I Want to Be Happy shows why.

Reviewer: Michael J. West


Lester Young: Crazy Over J-Z

Track

Crazy Over J-Z

Artist

Lester Young (tenor sax)

CD

Blue Lester: The Immortal Lester Young (Savoy SV-0112)

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Musicians:

Lester Young (tenor sax),

Jesse Drakes (trumpet), Jerry Elliott (trombone), Junior Mance (piano), Leroy Jackson (bass), Roy Haynes (drums)

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Composed by Lester Young

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Recorded: New York, June 28, 1949

Lester_young--blue_lester

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

Two months before his fortieth birthday, Young is having the time of his life at the Royal Roostunaware, perhaps, of his impending undoing via his ever-present whiskey bottle. Still, Crazy Over J-Z (a reference to New York jazz radio station WJZ) ranks easily with Lesters work in his prime. Even the heavier touch hed exhibited just after the war is gone: The sax is merrily agile, dancing over the rhythm sections comping and darting between horn riffs. He even toys with the new sounds of bebop: Some licks in his responses to the riffs, and one early in his second solo, sound suspiciously like phrases from Charlie Parkers Ornithology. (Incidentally, behind Young is the early snap-crackle of drummer Roy Haynes, who would in a few months would join Parkers quintet). The fact that it would go downhill so fast from here may amplify its effects, but either way the record catches Prez in a moment of inspiration.

Reviewer: Michael J. West


Lester Young & Oscar Peterson: Stardust

Track

Stardust

Artist

Lester Young (tenor sax) and Oscar Peterson (piano)

CD

Lester Young with the Oscar Peterson Trio (Verve 314 547 087)

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Musicians:

Lester Young (tenor sax), Oscar Peterson (piano), Barney Kessel (guitar), Ray Brown (bass), J.C. Heard (drums).

Composed by Mitchell Parish & Hoagy Carmichael

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Recorded: New York, November 28, 1952

Albumcoverlesteryoungwiththeoscarpetersontrio

Rating: 87/100 (learn more)

Lesters alcoholism had caught up with him by the early 50s, robbing him of his prowess on the saxophone. Stardust finds his hold on the notes wavering, his gait is stiff and heavy, and hes audibly blowing much harder to get a sound from his reed. Indeed, there are only glimpses of the recognizable Prez, such as in the first four bars of his second chorus. Nevertheless, Young captures the wistful, dreamy romance of Hoagy Carmichaels melody, even if its a little bit sadder than the nostalgia Carmichael wrote about. The accompaniment is appropriately subtle, tooOscar Peterson unusually subtle, while Kessel, Brown and Heard spend much of the record in imperceptibility. Like Parkers Lover Man, Youngs Stardust is a portrait of an artist at his most tortured, managing to wring fine work out of his own sudden ineptitude.

Reviewer: Michael J. West


Billie Holiday: Fine And Mellow

Track

Fine and Mellow

Artist

Billie Holiday (vocals)

CD

The Ultimate Collection (Hip-O 3918)

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Musicians:

Billie Holiday (vocals), Lester Young (tenor sax), Roy Eldridge (trumpet), Doc Cheatham (trumpet), Vic Dickenson (trombone), Coleman Hawkins (tenor sax), Gerry Mulligan (baritone sax), Mal Waldron (piano), Osie Johnson (drums), Milt Hinton (bass), Ben Webster (tenor sax), Danny Barker (guitar).

Recorded: CBS television broadcast, New York, December 8, 1957

Billie_holiday--ultimate_collection

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

I summed up all existence in an epigram, Oscar Wilde once bragged; Lester Young doesnt quite capture all existence in his single 36-second blues chorus, but he certainly sums up his entire musical life in those few flawless phrases. Even today, 50 years after his death, Youngs economy is still startling: listening to the busy, swooping Ben Webster solo that precedes him leaves one quite unprepared for what Prez will do.

There is little to add to the legend of Young and Holidays last performance together: how they staked out positions on opposite sides of the room during rehearsal, then locked eyes during Youngs broadcast solo as the producers looked on and wept; how they were both ravaged from hard living and would be dead within less than two years. Their art was intact, and for those few minutes on national television, the two old friends and partners once again put light into each others lives.

Reviewer: Michael J. West


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