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Lester Willis Young

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Evan Brock
Lester Young
Lester Willis Young (August 27, 1909 – March 15, 1959), nicknamed "Pres" or "Prez", was an American jazz tenor saxophonist and clarinetist. He also played trumpet, violin, and drums. Coming to prominence while a member of Count Basie's orchestra, Young was one of the most influential players on his instrument. He played with a cool tone and used sophisticated harmonies, using "a free-floating style, wheeling and diving like a gull, banking with low, funky riffs that pleased dancers and listeners alike". Famous for his hip, introverted style, he invented or popularized much of the hipster ethos which came to be associated with the music. Lester Young was born in Woodville, Mississippi, and grew up in a musical family. His father, Willis Handy Young, was a respected teacher, his brother Lee Young was a drummer, and several other relatives played music professionally. His family moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, when Lester was an infant and later to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Although at a very young age Young did not initially know his father, he learned that his father was a musician. Later Willis taught his son to play the trumpet, violin, and drums in addition to the saxophone. Lester Young played in his family's band, known as the Young Family Band, in both the vaudeville and carnival circuits. He left the family band in 1927 at the age of 18 because he refused to tour in the Southern United States, where Jim Crow laws were in effect and racial segregation was required in public facilities. On December 8, 1957, Young appeared with Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge, and Gerry Mulligan in the CBS television special The Sound of Jazz, performing Holiday's tunes "Lady Sings The Blues" and "Fine and Mellow". It was a reunion with Holiday, with whom he had lost contact for years. She was also in decline at the end of her career, and they both gave moving performances. Young's solo was brilliant, considered by many jazz musicians an unparalleled marvel of economy, phrasing and extraordinarily moving emotion. But Young seemed gravely ill, and was the only horn player who was seated (except during his solo) during the performance. By this time his alcoholism had cumulative effect. He was eating significantly less, drinking more and more, and suffering from liver disease and malnutrition. Young's sharply diminished physical strength in the final two years of his life yielded some recordings with a frail tone, shortened phrases, and, on rare occasions, a difficulty in getting any sound to come out of his horn at all. Lester Young made his final studio recordings and live performances in Paris in March 1959 with drummer Kenny Clarke at the tail end of an abbreviated European tour during which he ate next to nothing and virtually drank himself to death. He died in the early morning hours of March 15, 1959, only hours after arriving back in New York, at the age of 49. He was buried at the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn. According to jazz critic Leonard Feather, who rode with Holiday in a taxi to Young's funeral, she said after the services, "I'll be the next one to go." Holiday died four months later at age 44. The cool aesthetic that Young defined in the 1930s and 1940s was much more than a jazz movement. It eventually came to permeate the broader contemporary culture. In time, the cool worldview shaped how average Americans dressed and acted and spoke—often borrowing hipster phrases originated by Young himself. In fact, we have good reason to believe the very meaning of the word 'cool'—in its modern signification of a fashionable hipness—originated with this unconventional saxophonist. Lifestyle choices and behavior patterns that started with Young and a small number of jazz cats became the de facto way of life for the 1960s generation. This strange process is all the more surprising when one considers how unusual Young was in the context of his own generation. During his military service, Young was diagnosed as "a constitutional psychopath" and branded as a misfit due to his "drug addiction, alcoholism and nomadism." Because of his effeminate ways, Young was sometimes thought to be a homosexual—today he would be typecast as a "metrosexual" and it would probably enhance his music career, but in the context of the 1930s jazz world, Young was an outlier both in this regard and on any other bell curve you might care to chart. Oddly enough, almost all of his eccentricities—linguistic, behavioral, psychological—became part of the American way of life in the years following his death. This is the secret history of "the cool": it was the process by which people in Middle America started acting like jazz musicians. And no musician of his generation set the tone for this future development more completely than Lester Willis Young. In other words, Lester Young was a sociological force as well as a musical one. But even in the realm of music, Young's influence was far greater than even his fans realize. This is because Young's approach was perfectly suited for assimilation by those outside the jazz scene. If you were a pop arranger or soundtrack composer, you could borrow from Young in a way that you could hardly do from Bird or Trane. His lithe, melodic approach with its understated sense of rhythm—less syncopated than Louis Armstrong's, less wedded to the downbeat than Coleman Hawkins's—could be applied in almost any musical setting. His way of phrasing and choice of notes, less chromatic than Charlie Parker's and more reliant on color tones was suitable for both jazz and other commercial styles. In short, Young's approach was more flexible than any of his peers' during the 1930s and 1940s, and the easiest to adapt to new uses. Where do we find the impact of Young's aesthetic vision (as opposed to his behavior patterns and mannerisms) during the second half of the 20th century? In this regard, too, Prez is encountered almost everywhere. His influential style played a prominent role in the West Coast movement of the 1950s. It was studied by Tristano and Konitz and other representatives of the East Coast cool school. It was transferred to the big band in the form of the "Four Brothers" sound of the Woody Herman band. It was assimilated by Brazilian music around the time of Young's death in 1959, and helped shape the bossa nova style. Whenever you hear a sax behind a pop singer you are hearing echoes of Young's seminal body of work accompanying Billie Holiday. When a classical music piece requires a saxophonist, odds are the sound will be closer to Young than to Coltrane or Rollins or Brecker. Even elevator music shows Young's stamp. Almost every sax player on those Muzak charts is pursuing an ideal sound that comes from Lester as refracted through Stan Getz (the most famous of Young's followers). In other words, jazz fans have a hard time measuring Lester Young's influence because it has traveled so far and spread so widely. Yet I sometimes fear that Lester Young, for all his importance, is one of those grand figures from the past who has fallen off the radar screen of today's jazz listeners. Music consumers of the new millennium have little patience with the poor sound quality on those old recordings. And almost all of Young's greatest recordings date from the pre-hi-fidelity era. No matter how much the engineers clean them up, they still sound like what they are, which is old records. His early influences were Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke and two white saxophone players, Jimmy Dorsey and Frankie Trumbauer. From Dorsey, he adopted some effects like use of deep honks and alternative fingerings which he developed further, and from the three others Young learned a strong sense of musical form and a way of telling a musical story. All these traits were found in his earliest recordings. Furthermore, Young played almost even eighths which gave his improvisations a lightness which stood in big contrast to the much staccato phrases played by his contemporaries like Coleman Hawkins. Furthermore, Young’s way of improvising was unique. He placed rests on the most unexpected places and played phrases of various lengths that crossed the natural 4-bar or 8-bar lines. He also developed a way of motivic improvisation where the next phrase was built upon its predecessor. This way, he told a continuing story that made it easy for people to follow his ideas. Pianist John Lewis, who was a member of Lester Young’s quartet in 1951, remembers that Young took this way of improvising to an extreme extent. If Young had played Sometimes I’m Happy on a Tuesday night, he would play a variation of that particular solo on Sometimes I’m Happy the following Tuesday, and then he would play a variation of the variations the following week, so that his playing formed a kind of gigantic organic whole. In the early forties, Young’s sound changed drastically. With a new mouthpiece and plastic reeds he got a more dark sound, but his playing also changed. The freshness and youthfulness had to give way to a more lazy and relaxed attitude with a heavy laid-back, and his use of blue notes got heavier. This changed after the war. The dark sound was still there, but the young players in his own bands inspired him to get on his toes, and recordings from 1948 and 1949 reveal that Young had also listened to the bebop players. His playing also grew in depth during these years and got more emotional, and he came to rely more heavily on a small repertory of formulas that today are the common property of almost every jazz musician, thus ending up in countless solos and jazz compositions. Especially his ballad playing became emotional. On the surface they seem to consist of simple phrases, but when listening closely to them you discover innumerable small rhythmic variations and subtle harmonic devices such as an ability to find an unexpected way of placing chromatic phrases. Another trait which also was an inspiration for many other saxophone players was his use of the augmented fifth. You can’t overestimate Young’s importance on the development of modern jazz. His superb melodic gift, logical phrasing, and smooth, flowing lines were the inspiration for almost every young jazz musician regardless of instrument born after 1920. Even today, especially his recordings of the fifties made with young musicians in the rhythm section, seem timeless and can be enjoyed to a great extent. The musical language that Young developed, and which has later been part of so many jazz musicians vocabulary developed during the sixties into the so-called mainstream jazz style, has been popular ever since. Young will never be out of date.

Resources * "Lester Young Storyville Records The Best in Jazz since 1952." Storyvillerecords. n.d. Web.
03 04 2013.

* "JAZZ RHYTHM." Jazzhotbigstep. n.d. Web.
03 04 2013.

* "Why Lester Young Matters Jazz Music Jazz Artists Jazz News." Jazz. n.d. Web.
03 04 2013.

* Porter, Lewis. Lester Young / Lewis Porter. n.p.: Boston, Mass. : Twayne Publishers, c1985., 1985. GEORGIA STATE UNIV's Catalog. Web. 4 Apr. 2013.

* Daniels, Douglas Henry. Lester Leaps In : The Life And Times Of Lester "Pres" Young / Douglas Henry Daniels. n.p.: Boston : Beacon Press, c2002., 2002. GEORGIA STATE UNIV's Catalog. Web. 4 Apr. 2013.

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