Lester Young’s tenor sax is – along with Bix Beiderbecke’s cornet – one of the most poignant sounds in jazz. Tinged with melancholy, light as a feather, and utterly beguiling, it was quietly revolutionary in its day because it showed that the muscular tenor style and rich sound of Coleman Hawkins wasn’t the only model worth following, and it paved the way for such Young-inspired players as Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Paul Quinichette.
Born in Woodville, Mississippi exactly 100 years ago – on August 27, 1909 – Lester Young was playing music from a very early age. His father, William H Young, was the leader of a carnival band, and Lester and his five siblings were encouraged to learn an instrument so they could join the family business. When his parents split up in 1919, Young, his sister and his brother Lee (a future jazz drummer) went with their father to Minneapolis which became their base for extensive tours with a minstrel show. At this point, drums were Lester Young’s instrument but he gave them up when he was 13 years old.
He later explained: “It was too much trouble to carry the traps, and I got tired packing them up. I’d take a look at the girls after the show, and before I’d get the drums packed, they’d all have gone.” He switched to alto sax but was devastated when his father dropped him from the band and told him that he couldn’t return until he had learned to read music.
After six months, he was reinstated in the outfit but the emotional and psychological effects of being excluded by his own father remained with him for the rest of his life. Any boy would find such treatment difficult to bear, but Young was a particularly sensitive and emotionally fragile soul.
In 1927, upset at the prospect of a tour of the Deep South – where racial prejudice was inevitable – Young, who cut an unusual figure with his light skin (his mother was a Creole), doleful green eyes and vaguely auburn-tinged hair, quit the band and joined a local group where he switched to tenor sax.
After a brief stint with the short-lived but highly regarded Blue Devils, he was working in Minneapolis when, one night, he heard a live broadcast by the Count Basie band from Kansas City. Immediately smitten by everything about the band’s sound except the tenor player, whom he claimed he couldn’t hear, he seems to have had an unusual attack of ballsiness: he wired Basie, and offered his services.
Basie, who had heard about him from other musicians, sent for him and Young joined the band in 1933. Kansas City was a hotbed of jazz activity, and its after-hours cutting contests between local musicians and visiting players were legendary, few moreso than the one which is said to have taken place when Coleman Hawkins blew into town and tried to take on the likes of Herschel Evans, Ben Webster and Lester Young.
When top New York bandleader Fletcher Henderson invited Young to replace Hawkins in his orchestra, Basie advised his ambivalent tenor man to accept the invitation. It wasn’t a good match: Young’s airy sound was lost in amongst the other saxes who were used to playing with the altogether more forceful-sounding Coleman Hawkins. Attempts were made to persuade Young to beef up his sound but that wasn’t the solution. Clearly he was in the wrong band, and it wasn’t long before he was back in the bosom of the Basie ensemble – just in time for their first recordings.
Before those January 1937 recordings, however, a small group recording session featuring men from the Basie band was set up in October 1936 by John Hammond, the writer and jazz enthusiast. And so it was that at the rather advanced age of 27, Lester Young was finally recorded. His first two sides – Shoe Shine Swing and Lady Be Good – polarised opinion between those who only had ears for the Hawkins sound and those who were seduced by Young’s light, floating tone.
The next few years were a golden era for Young. In the Basie band, he was not only accepted, despite his numerous personal eccentricities (his unusual style of dress, his use of made-up words, his shuffling gait …) – many of which had undoubtedly been cultivated as a collective defence mechanism because he was so chronically shy – but he was also treated as a star player. And no wonder: his solos were agile, elegant and dynamic and they explode out of the ensemble on such iconic recordings as Jumping at the Woodside and One O’Clock Jump.
Parallel to his stint as star soloist in the Basie band, he enjoyed playing in a series of informal small groups – the line-ups of which were drawn from the best big bands of the day. This was the period when he fell in love musically with the singer Billie Holiday. Their performances, both separately and together, on a series of peerless small group recordings are perfection.
Young had a way of wrapping his horn round Holiday’s vocals which underlined how close they were, and how intuitive they had very quickly become about each other’s musical thought processes.
Holiday seems to have understood Young and his insecurities and shyness, and she did her best to boost his confidence – especially when his sound was criticised. She was very protective of him, and, for an intense period in the late 1930s, they were as thick as thieves; in fact, at one point, Young roomed with Holiday and her mother. This was when he annointed her Lady Day, and she elected him Prez, short for “president”.
In December 1940, Young left the Basie band for reasons that have never been established. After a doomed attempt at being a bandleader, Young spent a happy 18 months working in his brother Lee’s band before eventually rejoining Basie in late 1943. During his period away from the Count, Young had recorded some classic sides (with pianist Nat King Cole and bass Red Callender) which seemed to hint at a change in direction; at a more ethereal, wistful, less optimistic sound than he had had before.
It wasn’t only classic recordings that Young made during this period; he also appeared in the gloriously atmospheric and Oscar-nominated short film Jammin’ the Blues, which was made by the photographer Gjon Mili and looks like a Herman Leonard photo come to life. Jammin’ the Blues shows us that Young looked as distinctive as he sounded, with his signature pork pie hat (a smoke-swirled close-up of which opens the film) and his unique habit of holding his sax at a 45 degree angle, with his head tilted to the side.
Although he seemed an unlikely candidate for the military, a terrified Young was drafted into the US Army in September 1944. What possible use they thought an alcoholic, syphilitic, marijuana-smoking, pill-popping jazz saxophonist would be to them is anyone’s guess, but he was nevertheless packed off to Fort McClellan, Alabama, for training.
In January 1945, having been found with marijuana and barbiturates in his possession, he was arrested, court martialled and sentenced to a year’s detention in military prison. When he emerged, eight months later, he went straight back into action, returning to the recording studio in October 1945 for a memorable session which included DB Blues (after the detention barracks) and Lester Blows Again.
In the late 1940s, Young joined Norman Granz’s high-profile Jazz At The Philharmonic line-up of musicians and established his own band, featuring much younger players. Although he married for the third time after the war, this was the first time in his nomadic existence he had ever tried to settle down to family life (his third wife bore him two children; he had lost contact with his daughter from his first marriage), but he found it difficult to adjust to it.
His drinking increased steadily through the 1950s, he had two nervous breakdowns, and a catalogue of health problems. During this time, he is said to have retreated more and more into his shell, gradually losing the will to live.
His second – and last – filmed appearance was in the TV special The Sound of Jazz, recorded in December 1957. Young was one of the all-star band, which also included fellow tenor saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, accompanying Billie Holiday on her own blues, Fine and Mellow.
Reunited with his musical soulmate for what would turn out to be the last time, a defeated-looking Young served up a solo that is as haunting and beautiful as it is simple and sad. No wonder Holiday beams first with delight and then with obvious approval and pride.
Just over a year later, Young, who had moved out of his family home and into cheap digs in central Manhattan, was taken seriously ill three weeks into a two-month engagement in Paris. Instead of checking into the nearest hospital, he boarded a flight back to New York and, on March 15 1959, died in his bed in the Alvin Hotel.