During the 1957 CBS TV special ‘The Sound of Jazz’, there is a moment that every time I see it, basically melts my heart. Billie Holiday is singing ‘Fine and Mellow’ surrounded by some of the finest purveyors of jazz EVER, including Ben Webster Roy Eldridge, Mal Waldron, Gerry Mulligan and Coleman Hawkins. Also among them is Lester Young who when his time comes to play, coolly steps up to deliver his slow, porcelain thin and fragile alto sax solo, with Billie gazing at him with pure love in her eyes. Her face is all you need to know. Her eyes appear to well up, as do mine each and every time.
I first saw this performance on a dodgy VHS bootleg that I bought mail order from the States back in the mid 80s.
Prez, as Lester Young was known, has fascinated me pretty much ever since. His personal sartorial style always caught my eye. It was classic mid century jazz, with a pork pie hat perched on his head, and his vocabulary populated with words and phrases of his own invention, such as ‘cool’ and ‘bread’ being just two examples attributed to him. ‘Say man, how does the bread smell?’ – when enquiring about the wages for playing a gig.
He was born Lester Willis Young in Mississippi in 1909 and was a child of a musical family, with father Willis a band leader and his mum Lizetta, as well as many relatives, playing professionally when and where they could.
He grew up in New Orleans and worked there when only a toddler helping to supplement the income of family. By the age of ten, he was proficient on trumpet and violin and worked in his father’s band, performing in circuses and carnivals around the South.
However in his teens he regularly clashed with his father and was absent from the family home for long periods. The racial segregation of the time in the Deep South troubled him greatly and he finally refused to tour there anymore, leaving the family band set up aged 18.
At first he joined ‘The Blue Devils’ led by Walter Page, before hooking up with Count Basie and it was here that his tenor sax playing style was first noticed as being markedly different to many who favoured the more strident approach.
Lester honed a more relaxed, melodic feel which influenced many who followed his lead a few years later, such as Stan Getz and Zoot Sims to name just a couple of future saxophone stars.
Incidentally, Lester was also a skilled exponent of the clarinet.
He then moved around line ups, from Fletcher Henderson to Andy Kirk, and then back to Basie, never really settling anywhere for too long. He also recorded as he did so, small time then, but viewed as important records in years to come.
He had first met singer Billie Holiday on the jam session circuit of the 1930s and later worked with her in a Basie line up too. They also recorded together under the leadership of Teddy Wilson.
They developed a very strong bond, though Holiday always maintained it was strictly platonic. Lester had a habit of naming fellow musicians ‘Lady this’ or ‘Lady that’ and this applied to both male and female performers.
Subsequently, Billie became Lady Day. It was Billie who named him Prez’ said to be after the title President of the United States. ‘Lester was the greatest, so he became the Prez’
After once again leaving the Basie band, he recorded with small groups, often with is brother Lee on the drums and he also worked with singer Nat King Cole around this time.
He was then drafted into the army in 1944, just after appearing in Gijon Mili’s film masterpiece ‘Jammin’ the Blues.’ The black and white film opens on the top of Lester’s hat, highlighted in plumes of smoke, as he slowly lifts his head back to start playing his sax, which is cocked at that peculiar angle that he preferred in his early days.
I urge you to check this out on YouTube if you haven’t seen it.
His subsequent army medical found him unfit for duty, but this was apparently ignored and then instead of being placed in an army band like his fellow white musicians, he was placed among the regular ranks.
It is fair to say that he and the army were not a good fit. After being found in possession of marijuana and booze, (and a white common law wife) he was court martialled and convicted. He was sentenced to a year of hard labour in a detention barracks, before being dishonourably discharged. It is felt that the whole degrading experience traumatised him greatly.
Post war he was busy with the ‘Jazz at the Philharmonic’ set up, under the guidance of jazz impresario Norman Granz. He also recorded extensively during this period.
His playing though was in decline as his drinking habit increased, though he was occasionally brilliant, like with the great solo on the tune ‘Lester Leaps In’ at a Carnegie Hall gig which featured Roy Eldridge and Charlie Parker, who incidentally always claimed that Lester was a big hero of his.
Sadly though, his general health worsened and he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1955.
1956 saw him in slightly better spirits and he toured that year with The Modern Jazz Quartet and Miles Davis among others. He also hooked up again with Count Basie.
Late ’57 is highlighted by that performance I mentioned at the top of this blog, namely him working alongside Billie Holiday on the TV special. He was hospitalised not long after that though, found to be suffering from alcoholism and malnutrition.
The 1958 photo-shoot for the classic Art Kane image ‘A Great Day In Harlem,’ in which Lester appears among many of his jazz peers, would be for many the last time they would see him alive.
In fact he would be the first of the many musicians to gather that day to die.
However before that sad event would occur, he worked in Paris in early 1959. Sadly it all ended in the March of that year, when only just back in New York, after vomiting blood on the flight home, he died aged just 49.
Said to be heartbroken by this, Billie Holiday followed him just a few months later, dying at just 44
Bassist Charles Mingus would dedicate his tune ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ to Lester in honour of his trademark headwear.
The main character in the 1986 French film ‘Round Midnight’ is based on the later years of Lester Young. The main character ‘Dale Turner’ himself played by another jazz great Dexter Gordon, depicts the Prez’s time in Paris at the end of his life.
Lester had married three times. First to Beatrice Tolliver, then to two Mary’s, Dale and Berkeley, with whom he had two children.
Legacy wise Lester Young didn’t produce any real hit records, but his personal style and that of his playing influenced a generation.
He memorably said at the time of hearing that he was held in high esteem but those coming thorough ‘they are picking from a body that is still warm.’
One critic said he Young played (with) ‘a free-floating style, wheeling and diving like a gull, banking with low, funky riffs that pleased dancers and listeners alike.’
If that doesn’t get you firing up your YouTube to put in his name in the search box, nothing will!
Rest assured, you’ll be well rewarded for your time.
The Mumper of SE5