Lester Young: Way Down Yonder in New Orleans
Way Down Yonder In New Orleans
Lester Young (tenor sax, clarinet)
The "Kansas City" Sessions (Commodore 9585)
Composed by Joe Turner Layton, Jr. and Henry Creamer.
Recorded: New York, September 15, 1938
Rating: 98/100 (learn more)
Although Lester Young will forever be associated with Kansas City jazz, he came from a Louisiana family and spent much of his childhood in New Orleans, a city he celebrates in this classic track from 1938. It is fascinating to speculate on how much hot music Young might have heard in the Crescent City, back in those days before the first jazz recordings. Some commentators have suggested that Young was inspired by Keppard, Oliver, Armstrong and a host of other jazz pioneers at this time. Yet, based on what we know of Prez's childhood and personality, it is hard to imagine him hanging out at Funky Butt Hall soaking up the sounds of early jazz. The future tenor star was put to work by his family at age five, and took on a host of menial jobs—polishing shoes, selling newspapers and distributing flyers—when he wasn't trying to run away from home (which he did "ten or twelve times" whenever his dad "would raise a belt to him," according to his brother Lee). By the early 1920s, Young had moved on as a member of the family band, but years later he would revisit his New Orleans roots as a sideman in King Oliver's ensemble of the early 1930s.
Can we detect the lingering influence of New Orleans style in Young's later sound? The clarinet, not the tenor saxophone, was the king of the reed instruments in early jazz, and here Young plays both—and in a manner which emphasizes the similarities rather than the differences between the two horns. I love Prez's clarinet work, which reminds us of his New Orleans origins, and wish more of it were available on record, but this is one of his finest tenor solos. Young's early role model, the taken-for-granted sax pioneer Frankie Trumbauer, recorded this same song a decade before Young, and it is interesting to compare their two versions. Young's less syncopated, more fluid phrasing points toward the future of jazz improvisation—but it is to his credit that this low-key revolutionary could do so on a track that also reminds us of the music's (and his own) earliest days.
Reviewer: Ted Gioia