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Artist Profile: Saxophonist Lester Young

By

Jazz Saxophonist Lester Young
Courtesy of Blue Note Records

Born:

August 27th, 1909 in Woodville, Mississippi

Died:

March 15th, 1959 in New York City, New York

Also Known As:

  • Prez

An eccentric, and a loner whose self-destructive tendencies led to his death at age 49, saxophonist Lester Young’s understated playing was marked by its expression of unexaggerated vulnerability.

Early Life:

Born in Woodville, Mississippi in 1909, Lester Young played saxophone, violin, trumpet, and drums with his family band. Fed up with racial discrimination in the South, Young ran away from a life of touring in carnival circuits in 1927, when he was 18 years old. He focused on playing saxophone, and began touring in regional dance bands. One such band, Walter Page’s Blue Devils, formed the core of what became the Count Basie Orchestra.

Signature Style:

Young’s smooth tone and relaxed lyrical style earned him much attention in Basie’s band in the early 1930s. Most soloists during that time played with a boisterous and raspy sound, influenced by the star soloist of Fletcher Henderson’s Big Band, saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. In 1934, when Hawkins left Henderson’s group to tour Europe, Young briefly replaced him. However, he found his stint intolerable due to high audience expectation that he play more like Hawkins.

Eccentricities:

Young returned to the Basie Orchestra, and held fast to his distinctive style in and outside of music. He developed a reputation for his unique choice of apparel, and for his personal slang. His signature clothing style famously included a crushed pork pie hat. Much of the slang that remains in jazz to this day is attributed to Young, including the phrases “that’s cool,” and “you dig?” and calling money “bread.” In his younger years, he was known for cocking his head and playing his saxophone out to the side. Some scorned this behavior, but Young’s eccentricity earned him recognition as the original hipster.

The Army:

Young performed in Basie’s band throughout the 1930s, during which time he also recorded in small groups fronted by vocalists such as Nat King Cole and Billie Holiday. In 1944, Young’s career was halted when he was inducted into the U.S. army. There he was caught in possession of marijuana, and spent much of his time in army prison. After his tenure in the military, his drinking continually increased, and health inversely declined.

Jazz at the Philharmonic:

In 1946, producer Norman Granz hired Young to be part of his Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe, which toured regularly. Young often performed with the likes of Charlie Parker, and trumpeter Roy Eldridge. As his vitality faded as a consequence of alcoholism, his playing became less steady, but retained its expressiveness.

A Goodbye:

In 1957, after not having been in contact with Billie Holiday, who had years before dubbed him Prez, Young joined the singer in a televised concert that also featured Hawkins, Eldridge, Ben Webster, and Gerry Mulligan. The performance is notable for its moving rendition of “Fine and Mellow,” a nostalgic blues in which Young’s solo visibly delights Holiday.

Death:

In 1959, upon returning from a European tour, Young passed away in New York City. His life was cut short, but his influence stretched far beyond his years. His approach to melody, and his clear tone have had a profound effect on the development of saxophonists including Wayne Shorter, Warne Marsh, and more recently, Mark Turner.
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