Lester Young

Biography

Lester Young was eccentric, to say the least. He held his saxophone almost horizontally. Although heterosexual, he affected homosexual mannerisms, addressing everyone, male as well as female, as "Lady". He wore a pork-pie hat and never played a ballad without first learning its lyrics. When he was younger, his tone was so close to that of his soul mate, Billie Holiday’s singing voice that Holiday’s own mother often couldn’t tell them apart. Never the same after being court-martialed and confined to a stockade during World War II, he spent his final days in a rented room across from Birdland, staring out the window and listening to Frank Sinatra records. And so on and so forth.

Some of this is truth and some of it myth, but none of it would be of more than passing interest to us now if Young hadn’t been among the greatest and most influential of jazz musicians — arguably the key figure in jazz between Louis Armstrong in the late 1920s and Charlie Parker in the late 1940s.

Born in Woodville, Mississippi in 1909, and on the road in backwater towns with his father and two younger siblings in their family band for much of his childhood and adolescence, Young was twenty-seven and already in possession of his mature style when he made his first recordings, with Count Basie in 1936. Jazz lore maintains that each of the leading soloists of that period gained his edge over the competition by developing a unique "sound" — a tone as individual as a signature, resistant to forgery. With its almost imperceptible vibrato and light, airy sonority, Young’s sound was so original that it initially threw many fellow musicians for a loop. By 1934, when Young left Kansas City for New York to replace Coleman Hawkins in Fletcher Henderson’s big band, Hawkins’s big, robust tone was considered just and proper for the tenor saxophone. What soon became clear was that in Young’s case, no less than in Hawkins’s, sound was determined by conception. Hawkins needed an ample, vigorous tone in order to accent the strong beats in each measure and meet each upcoming chord change head on. Young, whose approach was more eliptical, did not.

Young spawned at least two schools of tenor saxophonists: one, mostly white and exemplified by Stan Getz, that took as its starting point Young’s cool timbre and uninsistent pulse; the other, mostly black and typified by Gene Ammons, inspired more by his held notes and subtone honks. There are echoes of his phrasing in the work of saxophonists who otherwise sound nothing like him, including Paul Desmond, Sonny Rollins, and Wayne Shorter. But his influence transcends the saxophone.

A case could be made for Young, whom Billie Holiday nicknamed Pres (short for President), and who died five months short of his fiftieth birthday in 1959, as the first jazz modernist, based solely on his refusal to let bar lines dictate the length or destination of his phrases. If only in terms of their rhythmic flexibility, Young’s earliest recorded solos with Basie anticipated bebop by a good ten years. And though he was essentially a linear improviser, his sophistication in implying rather than spelling out most of the notes in a chord provided a model for developments after bebop, including so-called cool jazz, pianist-composer Lennie Tristano’s harmonic extrapolations of standards, and Miles Davis and John Coltrane’s investigations of modes and scales.

Francis Davis

May 2000

Excerpted from Ken Burns’ Jazz: The Definitive Lester Young