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Lester Young (Woodville, Mississippi, August 27, 1909 – New York, March 15, 1959) was an American jazz musician, tenor saxophonist and clarinetist.
Nicknamed Pres or Prez by Billie Holiday, he is one of the most important figures in the history of jazz, and his work ran through the fields of swing, bop and cool. He is considered, along with Coleman Hawkins, one of the two most influential saxophonists, on whom the whole tradition of tenor sax is built in jazz.
Although he lived his first years near New Orleans, Lester Young moved around 1920 to Minneapolis, where he would play in a legendary family orchestra. He studied violin, trumpet and drums; started with alto sax at 13 years old.
Instead of touring south, Young left the family home in 1927 and joined another of Art Bronson’s Bostonians, and during that work he switched to tenor saxophone. He returned with the family band in 1929, and played for a few years as an independent musician with the territory bands, such as Walter Page’s Blue Devils in 1930, in 1931 with the saxophonist and clarinetist Eddie Barefield (1909 – 1991), again with the Blue Devils during 1932 and 1933, and with Bennie Moten and King Oliver in 1933. In those years he spent many seasons in Kansas City which was at that time a melting pot from which emerged some of the biggest names in the jazz of the 30s. That era is reflected in Robert Altman’s Kansas City movie.
He played with Count Basie for the first time in 1934, but left to replace Coleman Hawkins in the Fletcher Henderson orchestra. However, the other musicians did not adapt to their sound, so different from Hawkins’, and had to leave the band soon after. He toured with saxophonist and tubist Andy Kirk (1898 – 1992), and then returned with Basie in 1936.
At that time he met the young Billie Holiday and became friends for life. In his autobiography Billie Holiday recalls a contest between the young man and Chu Berry:
“(…) That night Benny Carter played along with Bobby Henderson, and there was Lester, with his little old saxophone, with duct tape and rubber bands.” Sitting next to him was Chu, and everyone started discuss who was the better of the two, trying to lead to a competition between Chu and Lester.
Benny Carter knew that Lester could shine in a duel that way, but for the others the result was not a doubt: Chu would have erased Lester in an instant. Chu had a good golden saxophone, but he did not have it with him at that moment. But Benny Carter did not give up. He was with me: he had confidence in Lester. So he offered to go find the instrument to Chu. He went and came back. Then Chu Berry proposed to play ‘I got rhythm’. (…) Chu made his interpretation and then it was Lester’s turn. He played at least fifteen “refrains”, simply well done, none equal to another, and each one better than the previous one. When the last one finished, Chu Berry had been liquidated. “
In September 1936, he had his first and legendary recording session, with a small group led by the pianist. The versions of that session of the 1924 standard George and Ira Gershwin Lady be Good and Shoe Shine Boy made a deep impression on the jazz community. Inspired in part by Jimmy Dorsey and Frankie Trumbauer (1901 – 1956), Young had developed a very original sound with tenor saxophone, opposed to that of Hawkins (considered until then the model), and that would be an important influence on the saxophonists of the line of the 50s called cool, like Stan Getz, Flip Phillips (1915 – 2001), Paul Desmond, Lee Konitz and friend Dexter Gordon, among many others. The melodic and rhythmic sense of Lester Young, as well as his articulation, will also be a strong influence for the young Charlie Parker. In fact, Gunther Schuller defined Young as the most influential jazz artist between Louis Armstrong and Parker.
During that first stage with Basie’s orchestra, Young made history in addition to the accompaniment he did in recordings of the singer Billie Holiday, along with a small group led by the pianist Teddy Wilson. In some records with Basie and the Kansas City Six, Lester Young can also be heard playing the clarinet.
After leaving Basie in 1940, Young’s career suffered a break. He co-directed a group in Los Angeles with his brother, drummer Lee Young (1914 – 2008), before meeting again with Basie in December 1943. The following nine months were exceptional: he recorded a memorable quartet session with the bassist Slam Stewart , and starred in the short film Jammin ‘the Blues.
His experience of racism during military service was so bad that he was mentally affected for the rest of his life. Lester, with the passage of time, accentuated the originality of his personal style, and became more and more eccentric. He was persuaded that he had paranormal powers, and began to dress extravagantly: he wore a strange hat and a long black coat that reached to his ankles. Playing in the saxophone section of the orchestras he had made a habit of holding the saxophone very inclined (sometimes almost horizontal) and – as documented by several photographs – he made use of this resource also in his solo performances.
He participated, well paid by Norman Granz (1918 – 2001), on Jazz at the Philharmonic tours throughout the 40s and 50s, made several recordings for Aladdin and also worked independently as an accompanist for other musicians . Young also adapted his style to the bop without difficulty.
Many of his recordings of the 50s show a greater emotional depth than in his early days; however, it was a matter of depression for him to see that several of his white imitators got much more money. He gave himself to drink and, after becoming ill in Paris in 1959, he retired at home and almost entirely devoted himself to drinking.
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