The Wall Street Journal’s Will Friedland has a really nice story in Wednesday August 19, 2009 at p. D19 on the Cenntennial of legenday bop saxophonist Lester Young’s birth (1909-1959) which occurs today, August 24, 2009.
This year also marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Lester Young, who passed away at age 49 in 1959. Jazz Giant, Jazz Legend, Jazz Colossus, these terms don’t do him justice. In Jazz Circles, he was known only as the President, or the Prez, a moniker hooked on him by none other than the late, great Billie Holiday, aka Lady Day, Queen of Jazz.
As Friedland writes, “Young…created a new approach to the saxophone and to jazz in general. His playing was, by turns, lighter and gentler than anything that had come before it, but also capable of driving with tremendous force and energy.” Id. at p. D19.
Friedland reviews a release from Fantasy Records (now owned by Concord, I believe) called “Centennial Celebration”, which contains a good deal of Lester Young live during his later years, with emphasis on the 1950s. This is probably a must-buy if you don’t have any of this material. Even if you do have it, it’s never a waste of money to buy a Lester Young CD just to get even one track you didn’t have before. Or download the one you don’t have.
When Ken Burns did his Jazz documentary stretching over a bazillion PBS hours not so long ago, there were two figures that stood head and shoulders over everyone else—Lester Young and Billie Holiday.
Before President Obama was born, before Hawaii was even a state or was issuing official state birth certificates, we already had a black president—and his name was Lester Young—or as Billie Holiday dubbed him—the President, or the Prez for short. Everyone else in jazz was the Vice-President, or the Vice-Prez—but there was only one President, and that was Lester Young. Because Lester Young ruled the roost, he was in charge, and everyone else was second best.
Lester Young was so good, that you basically need to own every track he every played on, but if you can’t afford that, the Ken Burns jazz sampler is a great place to start. There’s several different phases to Lester Young’s career, all of them fantastic. Video of Lester Young, with Basie, with Billie Holiday and solo, are also around, and these are worth viewing as well.
First there’s the Count Basie years, from around 1935-1940, where Lester “leaps in” on countless classic tracks with the Count Basie Band. According to Friedland, Mosaic Records has recently issued a 4 CD set last year covering this period, but it’s covered on many of the compilations of either the best of Count Basie or the best of Lester Young. This stuff is just fantastic, the best big band jazz ever recorded.
Then there’s his work with Billie Holiday. Here, one just says, wow. These two were so born to work together. Billie Holliday’s best tracks are with Lester Young playing; Lester Young’s best playing is with Billie Holliday singing. This is the best jazz ever laid down on vinyl in U.S. history. It’s covered in part in the Ken Burns samplers of both Lester Young and Billie Holiday, fortunately.
There is also the final appearance of them both on CBS television in 1956 or 1957 for a special jazz show with several other jazz giants, which is caught on LP, CD as well as on video somewhere, and a good thing too, since both Young and Holliday would both be dead in just a couple of years’ time. This is a must-have session as well.
Then there is the body of Lester Young’s solo work, almost all of which is essential. I could rhapsodize about all of it, but there’s particular stuff that’s really great, such as the live in DC dates from 1956, which produced more than one CD/LP. This stuff is terrific, and very fine indeed. It’s well-represented on the “Centennial” CD reviewed by Mr. Friedwald. Lester Young’s solo 50s work doesn’t try to follow what others are doing during the 1950s—and that’s kind of what makes it great.
Lester Young is essentially a romantic at heart, and this comes across in all of his playing.
Of the great boppers, I’ve always preferred Lester Young to Charlie Parker—while I know Parker is technically great and plays fast and improvises crazily and so forth, but Lester Young is really the finer ballad player, and yet can still bop and swing as well as anyone, improvise, and also accompany his vocalist, or play in a big band. In short, there was nothing Lester Young couldn’t do with a saxophone.
One comment about Young, and it’s discussed by Friedwald as well, is Young’s terrible experiences with the United States Army during World War II, and particularly with segregation. Friedwald descrbes this as a “nightmarish year he [Young] spent in the detention barracks, in the segregated armed forces during World II, which certainly exacerbated the chronic alcoholism that contributed to his [Young’s] death at age 49. (Friedwald, WSJ, 8/19/09 at p. D9. The liner notes to LESTER SWINGS (see infra) state that “his sensitivity in these matters was certainly aggravated by his traumatic army experiences of 1944 and 1945, until it amounted almost to a form of disability. Several people who knew him at the time have remarked on this. It took only one aggressive or unfriendly present to upset his equilibrium.” “Von Hangman is here,” he would mutter, as gloom descended. On the other had, when things were goint well, he could be the life and soul of the party.
So what we know about Lester Young is that he was a supremely gifted musician; he was a sensitive and tortured soul; a sensitive and open man with his feelings and emotions; and when it came to institutional racism, he was no Jackie Robinson; he could not stand up to inhumane treatment, and nearly collapsed under its weight. That he survived at all is a testament to his inner artistic strength and will to survive to play another day, and the twelve years of artistic production we have from 1946 to 1958 are, in my view, supremely brilliant and as gifted as his pre-war output.
Lester Young, if you see him play on video, had that kind of sideways way of playing, that was wholly unique, plus the famous pork pie hat he always wore, which when he passed away in 1959, gave rise to one of the world’s greatest jazz compositions, by Charles Mingus, “Goodbye Pork-Pie Hat,” which has been covered by a zillion artists, including even an incendiary fusion version by Jeff Beck and Jan Hammer during the crazy 1970s. I’m not sure what Lester Young would have thought about fusion, but then again, Lester might have leapt right in.
Lester Young’s was a long and happy administration, and long may it rule, happy 100th birthday to Lester Young, the Prez. I hope that the Ken Burns Jazz Documentary re-runs on PBS sometime, and if it doesn’t run in its entirety, I sure hope they re-run the parts about Basie, Young and Holliday again, because those were smoking hot. It’s not that we don’t love Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington or Charlie Parker, but Lester Young was the Prez for a reason—he had the sweetest sound, the most beautiful, and the music he made will last forever.
Happy 100th birthday to a true American legend, Lester Young, our only other officially recognized African American President.
DISCOGRAPHY – LESTER YOUNG
KEN BURNS JAZZ – THE DEFINITIVE LESTER YOUNG (VERVE 314 549 082-2) (2000) nineteen perfect tracks, compilation. Nice booklet with photos. Great place to start. A+++
THE PRESIDENT PLAYS WITH THE OSCAR PETERSON TRIO (VERVE 831 670-2) (West German Pressing, Polygram). Lester Young, tenor sax, Oscar Peterson, piano, Barney Kessel, guitar, Ray Brown, bass, JC Heard, drums. Recorded NYC November 28, 1952. 13 tracks with alternate takes, 61:49. A+
LESTER YOUNG: THE COMPLETE SAVOY RECORDINGS (SAVOY JAZZ SVY 17122 2CD Set with booklet). This outstanding two CD set collects rare material recorded for Savoy in 1944, 1949 and 1950 by Lester Young with the likes of Billy Butterfield, Hank D’Amico, Johnny Guarnieri, Dexter Hall, Billy Taylor and Cozy Cole (April 18, 1944); a session with the Earle Warren Orchestra (see, he really was the Prez!) (April 18, 1944) (too many greats to mention, but Harry Sweets Edison, Jimmy Powell, Earle Warren, Freddie Green, Jo Jones, to name but a few). The Lester Young Quintet (and this is rare); Lester Young tenor sax, Count Basie piano, Freddie Green guitar, Rodney Richardson bass, Shadow Wilson drums (May 1, 1944). These six tracks are worth the price of the entire 2 CD set. Fantastic. Lester Young and Count Basie in a small group setting. Wow! And this is all Disc One! Disc Two starts out with Lester Young Sextet, Lester Young tenor sax, Jessie Drakes trumpet, Jerry Elliot Trombone, Junior Mance, piano, Leroy Jackson, bass, Roy Haynes drums. (June 28, 1949). (10 tracks). Lester Young Quintet. Lester Young Quintet, Lester Young tenor sax, Jessie Drakes trumpet, Kenny Drew piano, Kenny Shulman bass, Jo Jones drums. April 2, 1950, live in Chicago (10 tracks). This 2CD set has a lot of outtakes, but also has a lot of rare material from great bands, and covers a hard to find period of Young’s career, unless you have the original Savoy 78s or 10” vinyl. Stupendous. A+++.
LESTER SWINGS – LESTER YOUNG (VERVE 314 547 772-2) (1999). According to the CD, “This CD contains some of the most memorable masterpieces from Young’s enigmatic and memorable Verve studio recordings. These recordings can be found in their entirety on the 8-CD set THE COMPLETE LESTER YOUNG STUDIO SESSIONS ON VERVE.” http://www.vevemusicgroup.com. thirteen tracks, 64.22. This CD covers the highlights of Lester Young’s solo and small group career from 1946-1958, and is thus the cream of the crop. Absolutely vital. A+++
LESTER YOUNG TRIO WITH NAT KING COLE AND BUDDY RICH SUPERVISED BY NORMAN GRANZ (VERVE 314 521 650-2) 1994) (Mfd for BMG direct marketing under license. This is an interesting CD. There are a total of fourteen tracks totaling 60:41. Tracks 1-10 are recording with Lester Young on tenor sax, Nat King Cole on piano and Buddy Rich on drums, playing as a trio, recording April 19, 1946 in Los Angeles, CA. This was originally issued on vinyl as 10” Norgran LP MGN and before that as Lester Young Trio Vols I & II on Mercury/Clef MGC 104 & 135, 1074 with just 8 tracks; two outtakes are included here. Tracks 11-14 are recorded with Lester Young, Harry Sweets Edison on trumpet, Dexter Gordon on tenor sax, Nat King Cole on piano, Red Callendaer & Johnny Miller on drums, and Cliffor Juicy Owens on drums, recording summer 1943 or 1944 Los Angeles, CA, and originally released on vinyl 78 Clef/Mercury 15003/8900. Some of the tracks on this CD are 78 to CD transfers. This is a very fine CD preserving some very famous session tracks with Lester Young and Nat King Cole now considered classic. A+.
LESTER LEAPS IN: HIS GREATEST RECORDINGS 1936-1944; LESTER YOUNG. (ASV Ltd. Living Era CD AJA 5176 MCPS MONO) (Made and printed in England) (ASV Ltd., 1 Beaumont Avenue, London, UK, W14 9LP). (1995). “lester young with count basie, billie holiday, teddy Wilson, buck clayton, bill coleman, dicky wells…and other jazz greats!” what else do you want to know? 24 tracks, 75:40 total playing time. This is pretty much prime Lester Young material. A+++.
LESTER YOUNG LIVE IN DC VOLUMES I AND II 1956 I don’t have the CD info on these, but they’re classics and easily found on the internet.
lester young with billie holiday
this is billie holiday doing fine and mellow from the cbs special in 1956 with lester young and an all star band. with coleman hawkins and gerry mulligan. wow! A++++
a famous clip of lester young and allstar big band doing the “jitterbug jam” check out those dancers swinging to lester’s solo! with Harry Sweets Edison and many others. A+++
count basie band with lester young at randall’s island ny
lester young in a nice video
lester young and great band – pennies from heaven
same band – blues for greasy
multimedia directory of lester young videos etc.
wikipedia article on lester young
theres more youtube video out there of lester young–these are just some highlights.
here’s another discography and list of books on Lester Young from a fan website:
* Lester Young Quartet And Count Basie Seven – 1950 (Mercury)
* Lester Young – ()
* The Immortal Lester Young – 1951 (Savoy)
* The Lester Young Trio – 1951 (Mercury)
* Count Basie And Lester Young – 1951 (Jazz Panorama)
* Collates – ()
* Pres – 1951 (Mercury/Norgran)
* Kansas City Style – 1952 (Commodore)
* Battle Of The Saxes – 1953 (Aladdin)
* King Cole-Lester Young-Red Callender Trio – ()
* Lester Young-Nat King Cole Trio – 1953 (Aladdin/Score)
* Lester Young – His Tenor Sax – 1953 (Aladdin)
* The Lester Young Trio – 1953 (Clef)
* The President Plays – 1953 (Verve)
* With The Oscar Peterson Trio – 1954 (Norgran)
* Pres Meets Vice-Pres – 1954 (EmArcy)
* The President – ()
* Lester Swings Again – 1954 (Norgran)
* Pres And Sweets – 1955 (Norgran)
* The Pres-ident Plays With The Oscar Peterson Trio – 1955 (Norgran)
* Lester Young – ()
* It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) – 1955 (Norgran/Verve)
* The Jazz Giants “56 – 1956 (Verve)
* Tops On Tenor – 1956 (Jazztone)
* Lester Young And His Tenor Sax, Vol. 1 – 1956 (Aladdin)
* Lester Young And His Tenor Sax, Vol. 2 – 1956 (Aladdin)
* The Masters Touch – 1956 (Savoy)
* Lester’s Here – 1956 (Norgran)
* Pres And Teddy – 1956 (American Recording Society/Verve)
* Lester Young-Nat “King’ Cole-Buddy Rich Trio – 1956 (Norgran)
* Swingin’ Lester Young – 1957 (Intro)
* The Greatest – 1957 (Intro)
* Going For Myself – 1959 (Verve)
* Laughin’ To Keep From Cryin” – 1959 (Verve)
* The Lester Young Story – 1959 (Verve)
* Memorial Album – 1959 (Epic)
* In Paris – 1960 (Verve)
* The Essential Lester Young – 1961 (Verve)
* Lester Warms Up – Jazz Immortals Series, Vol. 2 – 1961 (Savoy)
* Pres – 1961 (Charlie Parker)
* Pres Is Blue – 1961 (Charlie Parker)
* A Date With Greatness – 1962 (Imperial)
* The Immortal Lester Young, Vols. 1 – ()
* 2 – 1962 (Imperial)
* The Influence Of Five – 1965 (Mainstream)
* Town Hall Concert – 1965 (Mainstream)
* Chairman Of The Board – 1965 (Mainstream)
* 52nd Street – 1965 (Mainstream)
* Prez – 1965 (Mainstream)
* Pres And His Cabinet – 1966 (Verve)
* In Washington, D.C., Vols. 1-5 – 1980 (Pablo)
* Lester Young – Lewis Porter
* The Tenor Saxophone And Clarinet Of Lester Young, 1936-1949 – Jan Evensmo
* Lester Young – Dave Gelly
* You Got To Be Original Man! The Music Of Lester Young – Frank BÃchmann-MÃ¸ller
* You Just Fight For Your Life: The Story Of Lester Young – Frank BÃchmann-MÃ¸ller
* A Lester Young Reader – Lewis Porter
* No Eyes: Lester Young – David Meltzer
* Lester Leaps In: The Life And Times Of Lester “Pres” Young – Douglas Henry Daniels
–art kyriazis, philly south jersey
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