Lester Young (August 27, 1909 – March 15, 1959), nicknamed “Pres” or “Prez”, was an American jazz tenor saxophonist. After achieving prominence in Count Basie’s orchestra, Young became one of the most influential players on his instrument. In contrast to many of his hard-driving peers, Young had a relaxed, cool manner that he paired with sophisticated harmonies in what one critic called “a free-floating style, wheeling and diving like a gull, banking with low, funky riffs that pleased dancers and listeners alike.” Known for his hip, introverted personality, he invented or popularized much of the hipster jargon which came to be associated with the music.
Young left the Basie band in late 1940. He is rumored to have refused to play with the band on Friday, December 13 of that year for superstitious reasons spurring his dismissal, although Young and drummer Jo Jones would later state that his departure had been in the works for months. He subsequently led a number of small groups that often included his brother. It was during this period that Young accompanied the singer Billie Holiday and also made a small set of recordings with Nat “King” Cole, their first of several collaborations.
In September 1944, Young was in Los Angeles, again with the Basie Band, when he was inducted into the U.S. Army. Unlike many white musicians, who were placed in band outfits such as the ones led by Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw, Young was assigned to the regular army where he was not allowed to play his saxophone. While at Ft. McClellan, Alabama, Young was found with marijuana and alcohol among his possessions and was soon court-martialed. He did not fight the charges and served one traumatic year in a detention barracks. He was dishonorably discharged in late 1945.
While the quality and consistency of Young’s playing ebbed gradually in the latter half of the 1940s, he also gave some brilliant performances. But from around 1951, Young went into steep decline as his drinking increased. His playing showed reliance on a small number of clichéd phrases, and he eventually suffered a nervous breakdown, for which he was hospitalized in November 1955.
He emerged much improved and started recording again. On December 8, 1957, Young appeared with Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, and others in the CBS television special The Sound of Jazz, performing Holiday’s tune “Fine and Mellow.” It was a reunion with Holiday, with whom he had lost contact over the years. She was also in physical decline and near the end of her career, yet they both gave moving performances. Young’s solo was brilliant and is considered by many jazz musicians an unparalleled marvel of economy, phrasing, and extraordinarily moving emotion.
But by this time his alcoholism had cumulative effect. He made his final studio recordings and live performances in Paris in March 1959 at the tail end of an abbreviated European tour during which he ate next to nothing and drank heavily. He died in the early morning 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 on July 17, 1959 at age 44. [Abridged from Wikipedia]
Here is that performance — Young and Holiday and a handful of other jazz legends, including Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, and Gerry Mulligan. In addition to the great solo performances, watch Billie’s face, especially at 1:21, right before Lester starts playing. (You can always recognize Young by his signature pork pie hat.) And if you want the deeper context, a sense of change and history, compare this to Billie and Lester’s 1937 snappy recording of “He Ain’t Got Rhythm.”
Here is your soundtrack to tonight.
And here is the full ongoing playlist, approaching 800 songs.