Remembering Lester

Since the end of last week, when I wrote my piece on Lester Young, the extent of his enduring appeal has become apparent as various jazz musicians – players of all instruments – have shared their thoughts about this unique character and his enormously influential sound.

Over the next few days, I’ll be adding the memories and impressions of those who met him, who admired him and who were inspired by him, as well as their suggestions for required listening.

DICK HYMAN (piano, US): “When I was playing for Lester Young in Birdland in the 1950s, he amazed me one night by calling Lavender Blue – it was then on the hit parade. It was a really silly sort of song. Its full title was Lavender Blue Dilly-Dilly. It was the most foolish and un-hip thing and to hear Lester Young calling for it, I thought he was joking. But we played it and it worked fine – he knew better than I that the tune had that kind of potential. I would never have guessed it!

“We had a good working relationship, but I can’t say I knew him. Probably few people did. I recently introduced his recordings to a young musician who had never heard them, whom I thought was a little glib and unconcerned with where he was going in his lines. Lester always told a story when he played.

“My own favourite tracks would be any of the very earliest recordings he did with Basie – such as Shoe Shine Boy, Lady Be Good and Lester Leaps In.”

JIM GALLOWAY (saxes, Canada):  “Lester is, of course, one of my all-time favourites and proof that less is more. It’s really difficult to home in on a favourite recording. Favourites in music and art aren’t fixed in stone and vary with one’s frame of mind, but the one that springs to mind today is the 1957 Newport Festival when he guested with the Basie band. On One O’Clock Jump he plays five wonderful choruses with the band swinging like no other band could. He could say so much with only a handful of notes – just as a Matisse drawing could with a few seemingly simple lines.

“I never did meet Lester, but travelled and played a lot with Buddy Tate who knew him well. He often said that Lester really didn’t want to go on living, but thought he would make it to 50. He almost did.”

JON-ERIK KELLSO (cornet, US):  “I love Lester in all his periods, and consider him one of my biggest musical influences, so it’s not easy for me to pick my favorite tracks. It changes day to day, week to week.

“That said, his Lester Young Trio sides with Nat Cole and Buddy Rich are right up there for me. The chemistry between them is lovely, and Prez really sounds strong and comfy. This setting affords the opportunity for him to ‘stretch out’ and ‘tell his story’, as they say.

“I love his creative musical phrases, his pretty tone, his laid-back feel, his swinging beat, and his unorthodox approach (paving a new direction aside from the Hawk disciples, his way of finding the road less traveled, unusual phrase endings and song endings). Plus, he was simply one of the coolest people ever (hell, I think he actually invented “cool” as an expression as we know it!).”

ALAN BARNES (saxes, UK): “I love Lester Young. In fact, I named my record label, Woodville, after his birthplace. Why? Because he wasn’t just a great musician: he seemed to have an ‘other-wordly’ quality – which has a magic beyond definition and can’t be analysed- and because he changed the music forever. It wouldn’t be how it is without him.”

SCOTT HAMILTON (tenor sax, US): “Pres was the first tenor sax player I really loved and it’s hard to narrow my favorites down to a few but these ones are my perennial favorites since childhood: Back To The Land (with Nat King Cole and Buddy Rich, from 1946), Up ‘N Adam (with Hank Jones, Ray Brown & Buddy Rich, 1950), I Can’t Get Started (from Jazz At the Philharmonic, 1946), You Can Depend On Me (with Basie small group, 1939), and Sometimes I’m Happy ( with Johnny Guarnieri, Slam Stewart and Sid Catlett, 1943) is a little masterpiece. ”

ALAN BARNES: “My very favourite Lester Young track would be Somebody Loves Me with Nat King Cole and Buddy Rich, from 1946. The pianist fits with him superbly and it’s Lester at his relaxed and inventive best. He was a total original and worked at right angles to the more obviously ‘virtuosic’ sax players. “
BOBBY WELLINS (tenor sax, UK): ” I went to New York with Vic Lewis in 1950. I was 21, and was just too excited to take everything in. I used to eat just across the road from where we stayed because they did this cheap chilli dish that I loved – for $2. It was a hotel where a lot of showbiz people – musicians and people on the road – stayed. I suddenly saw this person standing outside the hotel looking awfully befuddled, and I thought: ‘Oh my God, that’s Lester Young!’. I couldn’t help myself – being young and foolish, I shot out across the road and shouted: ‘Lester!’.

“I told him that I was over with a British band. He had a high-pitched voice, and he said: ‘Oh yes, I heard you were over with Vic Lewis.’ It was so sad. He had this old dirty raincoat, and there were rumours that he was drinking a lot. I asked if I could buy him a drink, and he said [Wellins sounds like a female impersonator as he mimics Young’s voice]: ‘That’s very nice of you.’

” So we went in and sat down and, of course, as the guys were coming and going up and down in the elevator, they were having a quick look in the lounge and they’d see me, and I’d see this look of disbelief on their faces, and they’d come over and I’d introduce them.

“We sat there for so long. We talked about everything -current affairs, New York. I told him I was too excited to take it all in. ‘Well, you’re only a baby, man,’ he said. He had on his pork-pie hat – he never took it off. That’s what I saw first. I saw the hat, then the tall figure. He didn’t have his saxophone. The next week he was doing a recording, and he invited me along but we were flying back to Britain.

“Most of the people I idolised were the offspring of Lester’s influence, like Stan Getz. I never even asked him [Wellins sounds rueful as he says this] what mouthpiece he used. In retrospect, he was a bit bedraggled.

“People forget about how Lester played earlier in his career. They don’t listen to his solos in the Basie band when he was absolutely tearing around but in that lovely way he had of doing things.”

ALAN BARNES: “I know Bobby Wellins and Duncan Lamont met him in the early 1950’s on an American tour. Lester got quite a crowd of British musicians around him in the hotel foyer, happily accepting drinks, and made a comment about going upstairs to get ‘he loaves and fishes’ – whatever that means.

“There are plenty of stories about Lester in Dave Gelly’s book – as well as some great insights. He suggests that Lester’s erratic later work – sometimes struggling to get the sound, sometimes brilliant – may have had something to do with the state of his horn. Also, in a book called A Lester Young Reader there’s a lovely essay by Bobby Scott who, as a very young man, spent time with Prez on a Jazz At The Phil tour. They were drawn to each other because they were both outsiders: one for reasons of youth; the other because of not fitting in.

“Lester was quite a character. He hated anyone crippled being on the same flight as him – he felt that the chances of crashing were greater if they were on board – and referred to them as “Johnny Deathbeds”! However, he could be re-assured if a baby was amongst the passengers as he thought the almighty wouldn’t be mean enough …

“He also referred to Pee Wee Marquette, the midget MC of Birdland, who required bribing to pronounce a name correctly, as “Half a Motherf***er” which is pretty good.”

SIR MICHAEL PARKINSON (broadcaster & writer, UK): “Anyone who loves Lester Young and Ben Webster understands the full joy, range and possibility of the tenor sax. They are the gods who define the instrument.”

WARREN VACHE (cornet, US): “Lester Young was one of the most influential musicians to have ever walked the planet. His approach to music was unique, deeply felt and profoundly important. He paid the price for this dedication and talent while he lived, working for small fees, constantly traveling, and suffering many personal disappointments and indignities. In short, he had a miserable time while he was with us and in return for our mistreatment of him and his kind left us some of the most uplifting recordings ever made to sustain us in our daily lives and inspire us to greater heights.

“To reduce his life’s work to ‘your favorite track’, is, in my thinking, to continue the indignity and mistreatment he suffered throughout his life. Lester Young’s music was a gift, the magnitude of which it is clear we don’t fully appreciate or understand even today 100 years after his birth.

“To really appreciate his genius, I suggest you play all of his music, all day long, and do yourself the favor of shutting up, not imposing your own opinions and values, and actually listening. Let the profundity impress upon you what it will. If you learn nothing more than: although Lester Young is dead, his music is certainly alive and well.”

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