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Lester Young: A Tenor Sax Legend known as ‘Prez’

Lester Willis Young was an African American jazz tenor saxophonist. Young was one of the most influential players on his instrument, and came to prominence while a member of Count Basie’s orchestra. Known for his hip, introverted style, he invented or popularized much of the hipster jargon which came to be associated with the music. Young was the originator of the term “bread” as an expression for money, and habitually called both men and women “lady”. He was, of course, the man who nicknamed Billie Holiday “Lady Day”, and she in turn called him “Prez”.

Lester YoungLester Young was born on August 27, 1909, the oldest of three children. He grew up in a musical family in the vicinity of New Orleans. By 1920 he had moved to Minneapolis with his father, Willis Handy Young, a versatile musician who taught all his children instruments and eventually formed a family band that toured with carnivals and other shows. Young studied violin, trumpet, and drums, settling on alto saxophone by about the age of 13. After one of many disputes with his father, he left the family band at the end of 1927. He spent the following year touring with Art Bronson’s Bostonians, where he took up tenor saxophone. He returned to his family in New Mexico during 1929, but stayed behind when they moved to California.

In 1930, he played briefly with Walter Page’s Blue Devils and again with Bronson, then settled in Minneapolis, where he played during 1931 with Eddie Barefield and various leaders at the Nest Club. Early in 1932 Young joined the Thirteen Original Blue Devils, and while on tour in Oklahoma City met Charlie Christian. When the Blue Devils disbanded in the middle of 1933, Young made Kansas City his base and played with the Bennie Moten-George E. Lee Band, Clarence Love, King Oliver, and, on one night in December, Fletcher Henderson, then on tour with his star saxophonist, Coleman Hawkins.

Early in 1934, Young joined Count Basie, beginning an association that eventually led to national recognition. He left Basie at the end of March as a provisional replacement for Hawkins in Henderson’s band. Henderson’s musicians rejected Young’s very different approach to the saxophone, however, and he left after a few months. He joined Andy Kirk en route back to Kansas City, then Boyd Atkins and Rook Ganz in Minnesota and for the next year performed mostly in these two areas on a freelance basis.

By 1936 Young had resumed his association with Basie. In November of that year, with a unit from Basie’s band, he made his first recordings. His solos on Lady be Good and Shoe Shine Boy were immediately regarded by musicians, many of whom learned them note for note. During the next few years, as Basie’s band became more famous, Young was prominently featured on its recordings and broadcasts. Although he received mixed reviews from the critical establishment, the younger generation of musicians, including Dexter Gordon, Illinois Jacquet, and others, were enthusiastic about his music. His small-group performances, particularly Lester Leaps In (1939) and his many recordings with Billie Holiday, were especially influential.

Young left Basie in December 1940 to form his own small band, which performed at Kelly’s Stable in New York early in 1941. In May, he moved to Los Angeles to lead a band with his brother Lee, which went to New York’s Café Society in September 1942. This group disbanded early the following year, and Young played as a freelancer in New York and on tour with a USO band before rejoining Basie in December 1943. It was during this second tenure with Basie that Young came to the notice of the general public. In 1944, he won first place in the Down Beat poll for tenor saxophonists, the first of many such honors. He also became the favorite of a new generation of jazz musicians, among them John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and Stan Getz. He was prominently featured in the film Jammin’ the Blues.

On September 30, 1944 Young was drafted into the army, which he found a nightmarish experience. Cut off from his musical outlets, he was discovered using drugs and was court-martialed the following February. After serving several months in detention barracks in Georgia, he was released at the end of 1945 and resumed recording and performing in Los Angeles. At his first recording session he produced a masterpiece, These Foolish Things.

Beginning in 1946 Young spent part of almost every year playing with Jazz at the Philharmonic, touring the rest of the time with his own small groups. From 1947 to 1949 his style showed the influence of some of the young bop musicians in his groups in the occasional use of double-time and in the selection of repertory. He continued to develop and modify his approach successfully except when he was drinking; by this time his reliance on alcohol was becoming a problem. From about 1953 until his death his recordings were noticeably less consistent, yet he was still able to produce some of his best work on concert recordings such as Prez in Europe (1956). He made guest appearances with Basie’s band in 1952-4 and again at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957, but he never rejoined as a regular member. He became increasingly dependent on alcohol and on several occasions was hospitalized.

In January 1959, he began an engagement at the Blue Note Club in Paris. He made his last recordings there.

By 13 March, suffering from stabbing pains in the stomach, he returned to New York. On the transatlantic flight, as the varicose veins in his oesophagus split, he started vomiting blood. Surviving an agonising eight-hour trip, Lester arrived at his New York hotel, the Alvin, and resumed drinking in his room, which faced Birdland. After sinking into unconsciousness, he momentarily awoke, sluggishly moving his fingers and lips as if playing the saxophone. Then he slipped away.


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