A Hundred Candles for Lester Young
Tenor saxophonist Lester Young was born 27 August, 1909, and even at 100 he may be the coolest of cool jazz cats. He was (to single out a quality he prized) an original – a contrarian, even. For awhile he even held the bell of his horn out at a weird, unnatural angle. David Stone Martin once drew him playing in front of the tower of Pisa, leaning the opposite way.
Young had his own way of talking, an extraordinary gift for metaphorical slang. Sensing a hostile person: “I feel a draft.” Inquiring about how much a gig paid: “How do the bread smell?” On caring for his infant daughter: “I don’t mind the waterfall, but I can’t stand the mustard.”
Trumpeter Buck Clayton once said when Young gave something a nickname, it stuck. But chum Billie Holiday gave Young his: Pres, short for President of the Tenor Saxophone. Between 1937 and ’41 Pres backed Billie on almost four dozen songs; on “A Sailboat in the Moonlight” he’s vine to her trellis, encircling her. That partnership began a month after he hit New York with Count Basie, just in time for Christmas ’36, when the swing era was in full swing. They brought a present: a lighter, springier beat that swung even harder.
Before that Young had bounced around the Midwest and Southwest, and briefly toured with bandleader Fletcher Henderson. His colleagues complained he didn’t sound like the tenor champ he’d replaced, Coleman Hawkins. Hawk’s tone was rich and opulent; he analyzed a tune’s shifting chords, wove lovely, poised melodies out of them.
Young’s approach to harmony was more casual: he’d base a solo on a tune’s home scale, trusting his ear, not worrying about the chords so much. He might sound like he was getting to the changes early or late. It gave his playing an aloof, detached, above-it-all quality. But his phrases bolted like jackrabbits. Pres had started out on drums, had a drummer’s crack timing. Like a drummer he’d swing on one repeated, inflected note.
For all those qualities, hear Basie’s “Lester Leaps In.” Or “Taxi War Dance,” also from 1939, a soloists ‘romp so streamlined it lacks a melody; Pres provides a hint of one, kicking off with a nod to “Old Man River.” (He said later he dug his foghorn sound on that one.) Or try the escalating blues “Afternoon of a Basie-ite” recorded for Keynote in 1943.
Neither Count nor Pres hailed from Kansas City, but they (and the band) epitomized the fleet KC vibe: blues in defiant, can’t-defeat-me mode. As Jimmy Rushing sings on “Boogie Woogie,” cut in Chicago as the band headed east, “I may be wrong but I won’t be wrong always.” The Pres solo that follows makes the blues sound like it’s already blowing away.
But Young knew the woeful kind of blues too. He was drafted during World War II, and the US Army did not warm to this elliptical-talking black pothead with a white wife. He was busted, sent to a stockade for 10 months, and dishonorably discharged. Jazz lore says he emerged broken, never the same. Friends like Buck Clayton denied it: he was just glad to be out.
Some postwar ballads like “East of the Sun” and “Something to Remember You By” do have a new heaviness, less aloof and detached. But then saxophonists sometimes change up their sound just for variety; Young fussed with reeds and mouthpieces like the rest. (“I try not be a repeater pencil.”) And he didn’t always sound broken: hear “Ding Dong” from a 1949 Savoy date sparked by bebop drummer Roy Haynes. The fast tempo doesn’t give him any problems, and his tone is brasher than a few years before.
Pres never became a full-fledged bebopper when bop came in after the War, but the young players dug him deeply for his relaxed/suspenseful behind-the-beat swing. In the vinyl era, it was a parlor game to play Lester’s LPs at 45 RPM; sped up, he sounds like Charlie Parker. (If you could find a Parker 45, you could play the same game in reverse.)
After the War, Pres’s influence was everywhere. Illinois Jacquet and then a gazillion R&B saxists had transformed his repeated-note rock-skipping into catatonic honking. He also inspired a whole school of cool tenors, mostly white, whose greater success could rankle him later – “Stan Getz the money,” he grumped. He did Jazz at the Philharmonic tours, good for friendly jousting with peers.
He made some good records for JATP czar Norman Granz in the ’50s, but overall Lester Young went into slow decline, mired in depression and drink. In Geoff Dyer’s book of recreated jazz lives, But Beautiful, Pres near the end of his life is practically a ghost, watching musicians go to work at Birdland from his window at the Alvin Hotel across the street.
As part of an all-star Billie Holiday band on “Fine and Mellow” from the 1957 TV show The Sound of Jazz, Pres looks and sounds especially wraithlike, soloing second behind his old friend Ben Webster. (Watch it on YouTube; Young and Holiday had fallen out long ago, but check out her face while he solos.) With Pres as with Billie in the same period, you can hear the decline in the music, and it’s sometimes painful to behold. They died within months of each other in 1959.