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Young, Lester 1909–1959

Lester Young 19091959

Jazz musician

Stern Lessons Engendered Youngs Spontaneity

Spent Peak Performance Years With Basie

Long, Stow Decline Towards Death

Selected discography

Sources

Lester Young, nicknamed Pres by legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday was, in his time, the undisputed president of the tenor saxophone. Saxophone became a prominent jazz instrument during the swing era, and Young developed a light and airy sound that was in direct contrast to what his peersnamely Cole-man Hawkinswere playing around him. He played with some of the greats of the swing era, most notably Count Basie, with whom he shared some of his peak years as a performer. Though he came up in mainstream swing orchestras, Young was a pioneer as former swing band members splintered off to explore jazz as a more self conscious and cutting-edge art form, according to David Perry in Jazz Greats. Young was the first to adopt jazz as a manifestation of an underground Bohemianism which would always be in conflict with the status quo, he wrote.

Lester Willis Young was the first of three children of Willis Handy Young, a bandleader, and Lizetta Young. He was born August 27, 1909, in Woodville, Mississippi, but moved with his family to Algiers, Louisiana, near New Orleans, when he was an infant. Willis Young, known as Billy, who had studied at the Tuske-gee Institute, led the Billy Young Orchestra and played many instruments but focused on the trumpet. Lizetta Young played the piano. Willis Young passed his musical talents down to his children. He was a stern music teacher to Lester, Lesters brother Lee, and sister Irma, and quickly disciplined the children with his leather strap when his musical standards were not met. This strict musical education is thought to have inspired rebellion and a desire for spontaneity in Lester Young. The Young children were taught to sing as soon as they could speak, and were started on their first instruments at age five. Lester was taught to play trumpet, alto saxophone, violin, and drums. Lee Young later became a professional drummer.

Stern Lessons Engendered Youngs Spontaneity

Following his parents divorce in 1919, Young moved with his father and siblings to Minneapolis, where his father remarried a woman saxophone player. The new family formed a traveling band in which Young first played drums, but he switched to alto saxophonea much less cumbersome instrument to carry aroundat age 13. Quit them because I got tired of packing

At a Glance

Born on August 27, 1909, in Woodville, MS; died on March 15, 1959 in New York, NY; son of Willis Handy (a bandleader) and Lizetta; married first wife, Beatrice (marriage ended); lived with common law spouse, Mary, 1937-46; married second wife, also named Mary, 1948; children: Lester, Jr., Yvette Military Service; U.S. Army, 1944-45.

Career: Jazz saxophonist Played with family band, 1919-27; toured with Art Bronsons Bostonians and other bands, 1928-34; joined Count Basie Orchestra, and then played with groups led by Fletcher Henderson and Andy Kirk; tenor saxophonist for Count Basie, 1936-40; played with brother Lee in Los Angeles, 1941; guest soloist for bands in New York City, 1941-44; recorded Jumpin With Symphony Sid, 1947; performed at Charlie Parkers Birdland club, 1949 and 1951-54; toured United States and Europe 1952-57.

Awards: Named greatest tenor saxophonist ever, Leonard Feather poll, 1956; elected posthumously to Down Beat Hall of Fame, 1959.

them up, Young said in an interview reprinted in Down Beat. Id take a look at the girls after the show, and before Id get the drums packed, theyd all be gone. Lee, Willis Youngs favored and dutiful son, replaced him on drums. After touring throughout the Midwest with his family, Youngwho refused to tour in the South because of racism therequit the band in 1927. He did not play in the South until he toured there with Count Basie some years later, but it was different then, he is quoted as saying in Down Beat. Though Lesters musical career eclipsed that of his brother, Lee, Willis Young forever saw Lee as the success in the family and Lester as merely mercurial, a troubling and puzzling nomad, according to David Perry in Jazz Greats. Young would suffer from his fathers rejection until his death. Young has cited saxophonists Frankie Trumbauer and Jimmy Dorsey as influences.

Over the next five years, Young played with numerous bands and began playing first baritone sax, then tenor. Frank Hines, Eugene Schuck, Eddie Barefield, and Boyd Atkins are among the many groups he played with during this time. He was playing with Art Bronson and the Bostonians when he made the switch to tenor. I was playing the baritone and it was weighing me down, he said in Down Beat. Im real lazy, you know. So when the tenor man left, I took over his instrument. He also played with the Original Blue Devilsthe most innovative band in the area at the timewhich was led by Count Basie and included such up-and-comers as Walter Page, Eddie Durham, and Jimmy Rushing. He moved to Kansas City after the Blue Devils went broke in 1933, and played there with Clarence Love and King Oliver. In the midst of the Depression, Kansas City suffered less than most areas, and offered a haven for jazz musicians. Young took his wife Beatrice with him, but the marriage was mysteriously short-lived.

He had a short stint in Fletcher Hendersons band to replace legendary saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, but was bumped because Henderson did not like Youngs cool, light tone. By this time, wrote Perry, he had found a voice on the tenor saxophone which was highly individual, contrasting strongly with the macho roar of Coleman Hawkins. His relaxed, spacious style could be considered as the first manifestation of a cool approach to a music which until then had been fast and furious. He played with Andy Kirk for six months before joining Count Basies band, and played a residency with him at Kansas Citys Reno Club in the summer of 1936. He then went to Chicago with Jones Smith Incorporated, a quintet of Basie musicians, to make his first-ever recordings on tenor saxophone.

Spent Peak Performance Years With Basie

The definitive Count Basie Big Band came together in 1936, with Young on saxophone. Back with Basie in New York City, Young began to really make a name for himself; his light phrasing was unique among tenor saxophonists. He married Mary, his second wife, during this time. Basie made the most of Lesters unusual personality and musical style, Perry wrote in Jazz Greats. He left Basies band at the end of 1940for reasons unknownbut appeared on several of the bandleaders recordings during his tenure. He also recorded with Billie Holiday, among others. Young and Holiday shared a deep yet platonic friendship that sustained the two in difficult times and lasted until Youngs death. He nicknamed her Lady Day and she dubbed him Pres, as in president of the tenor saxophone, which he undeniably was during this time in his career.

Young stepped out on his own in 1941, playing with his own group at the club Kellys Stable in New York. He then co-led a band in California and New York with his brother Lee, but was unsatisfied. Lester Young did not have a leaders disposition. On a 1942 recording that featured Nat King Cole on piano, Lester Young produced a much heavier tone, according to Perry, full of vibrato and much more conventional. In short, he sounded less his own man.

Young rejoined Basie in 1944 and began to rebound. He was featured in an art film called Jammin the Blues, which portrays him as a bohemian of the jazz age. He is credited for coining a slew of hip slang and street phrases of the era, including the word bread for money, and saying he was bruised when his feelings were hurt. Ivey Divey was what he said in the face of an unfortunate situation. He addressed everyone, male and female, as lady, much to the chagrin of the men. While playing with drummer Jo Jones in a California club, Young and Jones were approached by a man interested in talking about jazz who bought the two a drink. He turned out to be an FBI agent who served them papers instructing them to report for the military draft. Young adapted horribly to rigid military lifewhich could be compared to his childhoodand spent a traumatic 15 months in the U.S. Army. While in the service, Young drank heavily and constantly found himself in trouble. He landed in the military hospital with a dislocated shoulder and was discovered carrying hashish. He spent a year confined at Fort Leavenworth, Texas, where the only relief he had came from Gil Evans, who later joined Miles Davis, who was stationed at Fort Leavenworth and did what he could to help him. It is widely believed that Youngs army experience had a devastating effect on his life and work.

Long, Stow Decline Towards Death

Youngs second marriage failed after he was discharged, and many regard his post-war career as a harrowing slide towards a death that was a virtual suicide, according to David Perry in Jazz Greats. But this era was not all bad for Young. He married for a third time during this era, to another Mary, and moved to Queens, New York, where the two had a son, Lester Jr. He recorded one of his favorite pieces, DB Blues, (Detention Barracks Blues), and released Jumping with Symphony Sid. Youngs own greatness was ironically to blame for his impending downfall, however. Many of the young jazz sax innovators he had so effectively inspired began eclipsing him during this time. Players like Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray, and Stan Getz were becoming greats in their own right. The jazz world began to focus on these young lions. But Young had a differing opinion. The trouble with most musicians today is that they are copycats, he was quoted as saying in Down Beat. As a result of the new players, Young worked less, becoming depressed, feeling obsolete, and drinking heavily. His playing suffered.

There were glimpses of the old Pres during this time, as on Pres Returns, which he recorded with Billie Holiday pianist Teddy Wilson. But this was the exception, and his performances were rare and painful to watch, so decrepit were his talents. Feeling a burden to his family, he moved into a New York City hotel room that overlooked Charlie Parkers booming club, Birdland. Young was never any good at making career decisions that actually furthered his career; he was almost devoid of business acumen. As a result, he was not financially well off. If Im so great, Lady Tate, he said to fellow saxophonist Buddy Tate, according to the New Statesman, how come all the other tenor players, the ones who sound like me, are making all the money? Rather than seeing Birdland as an inspiration, he saw it as a sign of his defeat. It was a cruel self-punishment that he lived in such proximity to it.

Youngs friends turned him over to the care of a physician who treated his alcoholism for a time, but Young was too far-gone. One last opportunity for Young, a one-month residency at the Paris Blue Note club, was disastrous, as he developed a taste for the toxic libation absinthe. The stint ended by mutual consent after just three weeks. Young suffered internal bleeding on the long plane flight back to the United States, and died on March 15, 1959 in his hotel room, shortly after his return to New York.

Selected discography

(With others) The Jazz Giants, Verve, 1986.

The Complete Lester Young on Keynote (recorded 1944), Mercury, 1987.

(With others) Lester Young and the Piano Giants, Verve, 1988.

Live at Birdland 1951, Bandstand, 1992.

Jazz Immortal Series (reissue), Savoy Jazz, 1993.

The Masters Touch (reissue), Savoy Jazz, 1993.

(With others) Rarities (recorded 1941), Moon, 1993.

(With others) Lester Young in Washington, D.C.

(recorded 1956), Fantasy/OJC, 1993.

(With others) The Lester Young Trio (reissue), Verve, 1994.

The Best of Lester Young, Pablo.

The Lester Young Story (Volumes 1-5), Columbia.

Count Basie: The Complete Collection of Count Basie Orchestra on Decca, MCA.

Kansas City Six and Five: Commodore Classics in Jazz, Commodore.

Pres: and Friends, Commodore.

Saxophone Giants, RCA.

Pres: The Complete Savoy Recordings, Savoy.

Jazz at the Philharmonic: Bird and Pres the 46 Concerts, Verve.

Jazz at the Philharmonic: Lester Young Carnegie Blues, Verve.

The Sound of Jazz, Columbia.

Sources

Books

Carr, Ian, Fairweather, Digby, Priestley, Brian, Jazz: The Essential Companion, Prentice Hall Press, 1987.

Chilton, John, Whos Who of Jazz, Da Capo, 1985.

Claghorn, Charles Eugene, Biographical Dictionary of Jazz, Prentice-Hall, 1982.

Daniels, Douglas Henry, Lester Leaps In: The Life and Times of Lester Pres Young, Beacon Press, 2002.

Kernfeld, Barry, editor, New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, St. Martins Press, 1994.

Larkin, Colin, editor, Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze UK, Ltd., 1998.

Perry, David, Jazz Greats, Phaidon Press, Ltd., 1996.

Porter, Lewis, editor, A Lester Young Reader, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.

Periodicals

Down Beat, February 1995, p. 38

New Statesman, November 22, 1999, p. 53.

On-line

All Music Guide Online, http://www.allmusic.com (August 20, 2002).

Brenna Sanchez

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Young, Lester

Lester Young

Saxophonist

For the Record

Selected discography

Sources

Saxophonist Lester Young had one of the memorable styles in twentieth-century jazz. Prez, or the President, as Young was nicknamed by singer Billie Holiday, played a spare and cerebral saxophone, though often a melancholy one. His tenor sax technique counterbalanced his peer Coleman Hawkinss lush, heavily ornamented tone. In his book The Reluctant Art: The Growth of Jazz, Benny Green described the difference between the two artists: Where Hawkins is profuse, Lester is pithy; where Hawkins is passionate, Lester is reflective.

Youngs presence on the bandstand, with his horn up and out at a 45 degree angle, was striking. Six feet tall with green eyes and reddish hair, Young was the archetypal hipster, wearing flashy double-breasted suits and pork-pie hats. His phrases, both in words and music, became legendary among other musicians. With the Count Basie Orchestra in the 1930s, Young defined the ideal for solo improvisations. In the 1950s he associated with the bebop innovators, such as alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, but he remained singular, a bridge between the hot jazz and the cool. Critic John Hammond, writing for Down Beat magazine in 1937, called Young without a doubt the greatest tenor player in the country the most original and inventive saxophonist I have ever heard.

Born on August 27, 1909, in Woodville, Mississippi, Young soon moved to Algiers, across the river from New Orleans. His mother was a Creole who taught school; Youngs father, Willis Handy, whom Young hardly knew, was an itinerant musician. Young grew up during the period in New Orleans when King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and Sidney Bechet were creating jazz. Young remembered chasing after wagons loaded with players and distributing the musicians handbills to the gathering crowds. Other jobs included shining shoes and delivering newspapers. When he turned ten, Youngs existence drastically changed. His father returned and his parents divorced. Lester and his siblings, Irma and Lee, went with their father on the road, moving to Memphis, Tennessee, then to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Everyone in the family was a member of Willis Handys band; Lester played drums and, later, alto saxophone.

Willis Handy was a stern taskmaster who demanded that his children learn to read music and who punished missteps. As a teenager, Lester evidenced a whimsical nature that often brought him into conflict with his father. Young split with his family as they were embarking on a tour through Texas and New Mexico in 1927. He then joined a succession of other bands. In 1928, while traveling with Art Bronsons Bostonians, Young made

For the Record

Born Lester Willis Young, August 27, 1909, in Woodville, MS; died March 14, 1959, in New York, NY; son of Willis Handy (a bandleader) and Lizetta; married first wife, Beatrice (marriage ended); lived with common law spouse, Mary, 1937-46; married second wife, also named Mary, 1948; children: Lester, Jr., Yvette.

Played with family band, 1919-27; toured with Art Bronsons Bostonians and other bands, 1928-34; joined Count Basie Orchestra, then groups led by Fletcher Henderson and Andy Kirk; tenor saxophonist for Count Basie, 1936-40; played with brother Lee in Los Angeles, 1941; guest soloist for bands in New York City, 1941-44; recorded Jumpin With Symphony Sid, 1947; performed at Charlie Parkers Birdland club, 1949 and 1951-54; toured United States and Europe 1952-57. Military service: U.S. Army, 1944-45.

Awards: Named greatest tenor saxophonist ever, Leonard Feather poll, 1956; elected posthumously to Down Beat Hall of Fame, 1959.

the tenor sax his primary instrument, apparently because the bands tenor player was too slow dressing for performances. Young also preferred the larger saxs deeper tone, although the alto more commonly got the solo part.

The Bostonians folded in September of 1930, and Young joined Walter Pages Blue Devils. An unpaid hotel bill in Beckley, West Virginia, left Young and the other musicians stranded and their equipment confiscated. Young managed to get back to Minneapolis, where he played at the Nest Club, and then moved to jazz capital Kansas City. William Basie, who became known as Count, played in Kansas City, as did Mary Lou Williams, Ben Webster, and, later, Charlie Parker. Young met Bennie Moten through mutual friend and saxophonist Herschel Evans. With Motens group, Young slipped easily into the Kaycee jazz style, which emphasized the second and fourth beats, as in the blues, and displayed short riffs repeated in different variations. The saxophonist became known for quiet bursts of invention that stunned listeners with their succinct power.

Young dueled Coleman Hawkins of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in a marathon jam session in 1933, an event that cemented his growing reputation. He joined Count Basie in 1934 and worked with him on and off for the next six years. During this period, he made his first recordings in Chicago, including Lady Be Good. By 1938 Young was celebrated enough to perform with Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall, and he joined Count Basie at the Famous Door and the Southland Cafe. Leaving Basie in December of 1940, Young went to Los Angeles to play with his brother Lee. World War II was looming, but Young was not interested in becoming a soldier. Eventually, a Federal Bureau of Investigations agent served induction notices on Jo Jones, the drummer, and Young at the Plantation Hotel in Los Angeles.

Youngs experience in the army was a disaster. Shortly after his entrance, he was arrested for drug possession: barbiturates that he had received for an obstacle course injury and marijuana. Young did not use hard drugs but smoked marijuana and drank alcohol more and more heavily throughout his life. He was sentenced to a years imprisonment at Fort Gordon, Georgia, and was dishonorably discharged on December 1, 1945.

Opinions are mixed on whether Young was effective as a saxophonist after the war. Some critics thought that he became less creative and more eccentric. His popularity, however, increased steadily in the late 1940s, until he was making as much as $50,000 a year. His idiosyncrasies while performing became more pronounced. He would approach the bandstand in tiny baby steps and referred to everyone by the names Prez or Lady. He reportedly became paranoid, feeling as if no one liked him, and apparently resented his own success, which made his most original solos standard fare. Young played at the opening of Charlie Parkers Bird-land in 1949 and toured Europe with Birdland groups and with Count Basie. In 1956 he was voted greatest tenor saxophonist ever by his fellow jazz musicians in a Leonard Feather poll.

Young was hospitalized several times in the 1950s for medical problems related to his drinking. By February of 1958 he had recovered enough to attempt recording again, but the results were weak. In the spring, he moved out of his house and into the Alvin Hotel on 52nd Street in New York City, across from Birdland. A woman named Elaine Swain nursed him there, and he gradually regained strength. He soon made an appearance with Jack Teagarden at the Newport Jazz Festival and arranged for new promotional materials. As a sign of his recovery, he made an engagement to play the Blue Note Club in Paris, France. The run proved to be his lasthe started drinking again and was forced to return to New York. Young died at his hotel on March 15, 1959.

Many saxophone players have credited Young as their inspiration. Young noted that his style was much like Billie Holidays singing. In Holidays autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, Young is quoted as saying that he would listen to records of Holiday in duets with himself, and they would sound like two of the same voices, if you dont be careful, you knowor the same mind or something like that. His personal and musical imagination are embedded in the textures of modern jazz.

Selected discography

(With others) The Jazz Giants, Verve, 1986.

The Complete Lester Young on Keynote (recorded 1944), Mercury, 1987.

(With others) Lester Young and the Piano Giants, Verve, 1988.

Live at Birdland 1951, Bandstand, 1992.

Jazz Immortal Series (reissue), Savoy Jazz, 1993.

The Masters Touch (reissue), Savoy Jazz, 1993.

(With others) Rarities (recorded 1941), Moon, 1993.

(With others) Lester Young in Washington, D.C. (recorded 1979), Fantasy/OJC, 1993.

(With others) The Lester Young Trio (reissue), Verve, 1994.

The Best of Lester Young, Pablo.

The Lester Young Story (Volumes 1-5), Columbia.

Count Basie: The Complete Collection of Count Basie Orchestra on Decca, MCA.

Kansas City Six and Five: Commodore Classics in Jazz, Commodore.

Prez and Friends, Commodore.

Saxophone Giants, RCA.

Pres: The Complete Savoy Recordings, Savoy.

Jazz at the Philharmonic: Bird and Pres the 46 Concerts, Verve.

Jazz at the Philharmonic: Lester Young Carnegie Blues, Verve.

The Sound of Jazz, Columbia.

Sources

Books

Delannoy, Luc, Pres, The Story of Lester Young, University of Arkansas Press, 1993.

Green, Benny, The Reluctant Art: The Growth of Jazz, Horizon Press, 1963.

Hammond, John, John Hammond on Record: An Autobiography, Ridge Press, 1977.

Holiday, Billie, with William Dufty, Lady Sings the Blues, Doubleday, 1956.

Porter, Lewis, Lester Young, Twayne, 1985.

Simon, George T., The Big Bands, Macmillan, 1967.

Steams, Marshall, The Story of Jazz, Oxford Press, 1962.

Wilson, John S., Jazz: The Transition Years, Appleton, 1966.

Periodicals

Down Beat, November 2, 1955; March 7, 1956; March 1, 1962.

Paul E. Anderson

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"Young, Lester." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Sep. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Young, Lester." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved September 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/young-lester