Lester Young Turns 100 | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
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Lester Young electrified the jazz world with his dexterity and imagination. (Dennis Stock / Magnum Photos)

Lester Young Turns 100

Billie Holiday’s favorite musician, jazz great Lester “Prez” Young brought a hip, freewheeling sensibility to his saxophone playing

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Though Lester Young was revered in his time as an artist of the highest rank, the 100th anniversary of his birth has not sparked much in the way of commemoration. No postage stamp; no parade in Woodville, Mississippi, where he was born on August 27, 1909; no statues in New Orleans, Kansas City or New York City —all places with a claim on the spellbinding Swing Era saxophonist known as Prez.

A shining exception is Columbia University's WKCR radio, where, for the past 40 years, jazz historian Phil Schaap has led marathon birthday tributes to Young, revisiting his landmark recordings from the 1930s and '40s with Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman and other leading lights, as well as Young's in-and-out performances in the troubled years before his death in 1959. Like Louis Armstrong before him, Prez was a pivotal figure; his lyrical, flowing style changed the terms of jazz improvisation and deeply influenced such musicians as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Frank Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Schaap's devotion has a personal element, too: Young; his wife, Mary, and their kids were friends and neighbors of the Schaap family in Queens, New York, in the late '50s. Though he was in grade school at the time, Schaap remembers Young's sweet voice and fun-loving presence, as well as moments of conversation among the grown-ups, such as the time his father, Walter, stood with Young in the front doorway discussing racial equality, and the jazzman remarked, "It never goes in the back door."

Like many of Young's phrases—musical and verbal—the comment was both deft and shrouded. He was known for speaking a private language, some of which has entered the American lexicon. The expression "that's cool" was probably coined by him, as were "bread" (for money), "You dig?" and such colorful sayings as "I feel a draft"—code for prejudice and hostility in the air. He also wore sunglasses in nightclubs, sported a crushed black porkpie hat and tilted his saxophone at a high angle "like a canoeist about to plunge his paddle into the water," as the New Yorker's Whitney Balliett put it. Rolling Stone later pronounced Prez "quite likely the hippest dude that ever lived."

Young's impact on the language of music was even greater. Before tenorman Coleman Hawkins led the emergence of the saxophone as a serious instrument in the 1920s, most sax players "habitually produced either a kind of rubbery belch or a low, mooing noise," wrote Young biographer Dave Gelly. Young came along right behind Hawkins, and electrified the jazz world with his dexterity and imagination.

"He redefined the instrument," says the tenor saxophonist and jazz scholar Loren Schoenberg, who is also executive director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem (a Smithsonian affiliate). His most fundamental change involved a subtle relaxation of jazz phrasing and rhythm. "A lot of lesser players depend on the friction of a spiky rhythm to make it seem as if it's 'hot,' " Schoenberg says. "Young found a way to play that had a more even rhythm, and yet he swung like crazy. This called for great ingenuity and great genius."

Young mastered the art of improvising beautiful melodies, which he played with a velvety tone and an effortless, floating quality. Yet like a great dancer, he never lost sight of the beat. A bluesman at heart, he could swoop and moan and play with edge, but more typically, the sensation was one of "pulsating ease," as critic Nat Hentoff once described it. At slower tempos, he radiated a more wistful, bruised spirit. "In all of Lester Young's finest solos," Albert Murray writes in his classic study, Stomping the Blues, "there are overtones of unsentimental sadness that suggest he was never unmindful of human vulnerability."

Young was raised in and around New Orleans in a musical family that performed in minstrel shows and carnivals. His father, Willis Handy Young, was an accomplished music educator; he doted on Lester but also often belt-whipped the boy, prompting him to run away 10 or 12 times, according to his younger brother Lee. The family moved to Minneapolis in 1919 and performed across the American heartland. At a stop in Harlan, Kentucky, the Youngs came close to being lynched; apparently, the audience had been expecting a white band. In 1927, at age 18, Lester ran away for good rather than face the indignities of a planned tour of Texas and the Deep South. He latched on with territory bands (dance bands that would travel a given region) such as Walter Page's Blue Devils, several of whose stars—including bassist Page, singer Jimmy Rushing, drummer Jo Jones and pianist Count Basie—would later form the nucleus of Basie's popular, ultra-swinging orchestra. The novelist and jazz writer Ralph Ellison remembered hearing Young jamming in an Oklahoma City shoeshine parlor with members of the Blue Devils as early as 1929, "his head thrown back, his horn even then outthrust."

Young's prowess was well known by 1934, when he first joined the Basie band in Kansas City; by the time he left, in 1940, he had established himself as one of the top stars in jazz. Most of Young's greatest records date from this period and the early '40s, when he teamed up with Holiday, Goodman, Charlie Christian, Nat King Cole and a number of excellent small groups composed mainly of Basie-ites. Young later said that his favorite solo from the Basie years came on a sprightly tune called Taxi War Dance. "The entire solo is 32 bars long; it takes exactly 35 seconds," writes Gelly, "and it's a masterpiece to stand alongside Armstrong's West End Blues and Parker's Ko-Ko. No one else could have done it because no else's mind worked that way."

By all accounts, Young was a painfully shy and sensitive loner who hated conflict of any kind. He also had a self-destructive streak and blithely ignored his health. "Prez always had a bottle of liquor in his pocket," said pianist Jimmy Rowles.

Young was sliding into a long decline by his early 30s, probably accelerated by his hellish Army experience. He was court-martialed in early 1945 for marijuana possession, then confined for nearly a year in disciplinary barracks, an experience he called "one mad nightmare." He bounced back to record some of his most successful records and tour with the all-star Jazz at the Philharmonic bands, but he was hospitalized with a nervous breakdown in 1955. Soon after returning from an engagement in Paris, Young died in the Alvin Hotel in Manhattan on March 15, 1959, just months before his old friend and musical soulmate Billie Holiday.

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