Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Young, Lester (Willis)

If originality is the measuring stick of musical genius, then few measure up to Lester Young. From his light sound on the tenor saxophone to his unique turns of phrase, no one before or after did things quite the way he did. “Originality's the thing,” Young once said. “You can have tone and technique and a lot of other things, but without originality you ain't really nowhere. Gotta be original.”

         Lester Young, photo by Herb Snitzer

Lester Willis Young was born in Woodville, Mississippi on August 27, 1909, then grew up in Algiers, Louisiana, across the river from New Orleans. Growing up in Louisiana, he was able to enjoy many different styles of music, and often followed that bands that played on open trucks around the city.

Young got his start as a performer playing drums in the family band led by his father, Willis Young. Lester's brother Lee recalled his brother's individualistic nature even at an early age: “Everyone would hold the drumstick between their forefinger and their thumb, because that's the way you're taught to hold a drumstick. Well, he didn't do that. He held it between his forefinger and his middle finger. . . . I have never seen anyone, you know, as long as I played drums after that, I never did see anyone ever do that. So if he had stayed with the drums instead of the saxophone, he sill would have had a uniqueness about him.”

The Young family band toured the south, playing vaudeville and carnival tent shows. Sometime around 1927, Young stopped playing the drums to focus on the alto saxophone. "I got tired of packing them up,” he recalled. “I'd take a look at the girls after the show, and before I’d get the drums packed, they'd all be gone.”

Lester leaves the family band and joins Art Bronson's Bostonians in 1928, where he switches to the tenor saxophone. He briefly rejoins the family band in 1929, but then moves on to a series of bands that play around the South and Southwest, including Eli Rice’s Cotton Pickers, Walter Page’s Blue Devils, and Eugene Schuck’s Cotton Club Orchestra.

Early in 1932, Young joins the Thirteen Original Blue Devils, one of the most popular touring bands in the Southwest. While playing at Ritz Ballroom in Oklahoma City, he meets guitarist Charlie Christian, who adapts Young’s style of playing to his instrument. After the Blue Devils disband in May of 1933, Young tours with King Oliver until November, when he returns to Kansas City to play with the Bennie Moten-George E. Lee band.

On one memorable evening in December of 1933, Young sat in with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra which was visiting from New York, in the place of Henderson's lead tenor, Coleman Hawkins. Later that night, Hawkins appeared at a jam session and squared off in a "cutting contest" with local saxophonists Young, Ben Webster and Herschel Evans through the night.

Young joined Count Basie's band in the early part of 1934, but left in March to replace Hawkins in Henderson's band. “I had a lot of trouble there,” Young remembered. “The whole band was buzzing on me because I had taken Hawk's place. I didn't have the same kind of sound he had." Unable to overcome the criticism and negative reaction to his playing, Young asked for a letter of release from Henderson.

Young spent the better part of the next year freelancing between Minneapolis, Minnesota and Kansas City, Missouri, before rejoining Basie in 1935. After hearing a radio broadcast of the band during their performance from the Reno Club in Kansas City, producer John Hammond arranged a recording contract for the band with the Music Corporation of America. “Lester Young's tenor playing,” Hammond told Down Beat, “is so good that it seems impossible that it was the same guy who took Hawkins' place in Fletcher's band two years ago and failed to distinguish himself.”

Young made his first commercial recordings with members of the Basie band in October of 1936 under the name “Jones-Smith, Inc” to avoid a contract dispute. Young's playing on “Oh, Lady Be Good”and “Shoe Shine Boy” galvanized aspiring saxophonists across the country, including Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon, who learned to play his solos note for note.

Basie's band made its debut in New York City on December 24. “Young wore an incurious, enigmatic expression on a strange boyish face," recalled critic Stanley Dance. "He sat farthest from Basie, turning away from the sax section to blow, one shoulder down and the horn tilted at an odd angle.”

Four days after making the first recording of the full Basie band for Decca, Young recorded with vocalist Billie Holiday for the first time on January 25, 1937. The two shared a special bond both on and off the bandstand, which can be heard on tracks such as “All of Me” and “I Can’t Get Started.” “She taught me a lot of things and got me little record dates playing behind her, little solos and things like that," Young recalled. "Some time I'd sit down and listen to [the records we made together], and it sound like two of the same voices, if you don't be careful, of the same mind.”

The Basie Band recorded Young’s composition,“Lester Leaps In,” on September 5, 1939 and "Tickle Toe" in March of 1940. Both demonstrate Young's serpentine melodic sensibility, unusual for the Swing Era, which opened the door for younger players to break out of the clichés of big-band playing.

Young left Basie in December 1940 and traveled to Los Angeles and joined his brother Lee’s band. Lee takes the band to New York, then breaks it up in February 1943 after their father’s death. Lester freelances around New York, then rejoins the Basie Band in December 1943.

In September of 1944, Young is drafted into the army and is stationed at Fort McClellan, Alabama. Moving from the bandstand to the army was a difficult transition for Young. In February 1945, he is court-martialed for possession of drugs and sent to the detention barracks in Fort Gordon, Georgia. Lester later described he his experience in the army as “a nightmare, man, one mad nightmare.” After finally being discharged, he goes to Los Angeles at the end of 1945 where he signs a recording contract with record producer Norman Granz.

From 1947 through the end of his life, Young tours extensively, and records for Granz's Verve label, such as on this version of "Ad Lib Blues" with pianist Oscar Peterson in 1952. He often appears as a guest with the Basie Band and in the nightclubs of New York City. In the early part of 1952, Young travels to Europe for the first time with Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP), a touring all-star show that showcased some of the era's greatest performers. He makes the trip across seas again in 1953 and 1954, with JATP and the Birdland All-Stars, respectively.

On April 2, 1955, Young performs at a memorial concert for Charlie Parker at Carnegie Hall. “I thought Bird was a genius,” Young said of Parker. “They way he knew his instrument he'd be a hard man to cap." As a sign of his own failing health, Young is hospitalized at the end of 1956 and again in 1957. These hospital visits revive Young temporarily, and he continues his relentless touring schedule, even though his playing is not always well-received. “I get all kind of insults about, ‘You don't play like you played when you were with Count Basie,’” Young complained. “I've developed my saxophone to play it. . . and I'm not through working on it yet. That's why they get all trapped up, they go, ‘Goddamn, I never heard him play like this!’ That's the way I want (things), that's modern, dig?”

In December of 1957, Young appeared on the TV program “The Sound of Jazz” on December 8, 1957 with Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge and Gerry Mulligan. As Pres jumps in to take his solo on "Fine and Mellow," Holiday’s wonderment and pure joy at the reunion of the two kindred musical souls is the most memorable moment of the show.

After another hospitalization in 1958, Young moved into the Alvin Hotel in Manhattan, right across from Birdland. “He had a great big room at the Alvin,” recalled writer Whitney Bailliett, “and when I’d go up to see him I'd find full plates of food everywhere. They'd been brought by friends, but he wouldn't eat.” He makes his last commercial recording on March 2, 1959 and dies twelve days later.

Young helped open the door to bebop, but later audiences failed to appreciate his playing in the same way as the enthusiastic crowds of the Swing Era had. As his recordings from this era demonstrate, however, Young kept creating, continuing to push himself in new directions. His late career may be underappreciated, but those who take to time to search can still hear the wide diversity of Young’s interest. “I don't like to get hung up with one thing,” Young told Leonard Feather. “Anything they play over the radio that I like, I'll get it. Just all music, all day and all night music. Just any kind of music you play for me, I melt with all of it.”

Contributor: Darren Mueller