The other night Benny Goodman, Basie, Lester Young, Jo Jones, Buck Clayton and Harry James got together in a small Harlem joint and jammed from two-fifteen to six in the morning. The music was something tremendous, for everyone distinguished himself. But one conclusion was inescapable: that Lester Young was not only the star of the evening but without doubt the greatest tenor player in the country. In fact I’ll stick my neck out even further: he is the most original and inventive saxophonist I have ever heard. (John Hammond)
If you think of the quintessential jazz photograph from the late 1930's - 40's, it's likely that you'll picture a small night club, curling cigarette smoke and a saxophone. Lester Young, who along with Coleman Hawkins was the most influential swing tenor sax player of his time, would probably be in that picture. He was the first jazz hipster - he wore a pork pie hat, held his sax at a 45 degree angle and coined the phrase, "cool". He was known as the President of Jazz, or simply "Pres". Yet he had the substance to back up the style.
Coleman Hawkins wrote the book on how to play the tenor sax. He was renowned for his gruff, aggressive tone and for his unorthodox approach to manipulating the harmony of a song. Most of the tenor sax players of the time attempted in some way to emulate him. Yet Lester Young did not. Young began playing on a c-note sax, a popular instrument in the 1920's made popular by Frankie Trumbauer. The register is somewhere in between the tenor and the alto. When Lester changed over to the tenor he tended to play the instrument a little higher than normal. His sound is deceptively simple for that but his playing was extremely profound. His style was more relaxed as he tended to float around the notes with a great sense of rhythm.
He was born in 1909 in Mississippi but spend most of his youth in and around New Orleans. He cut his teeth playing with the territory bands in Oklahoma before ending up in jazz scene of Kansas City in the early 1930's. He ultimately ended up in the original Count Basie Orchestra and was making his first recordings in 1936.
Shoe Shine BoyHis first recording with a small group and right from the off he demonstrates a completely different tone from his contemporaries, Hawkins Webster and Chu Berry Light and airy played with adventure and abandon. Lester always preferred the small ensemble setting. This tune also perfectly showcases the innovative rhythm displayed by Jo Jones and Walter Page.
A superb high tempo showcase for Lester Young and Count Basie on the piano. The back and forth between the two is awesome. This is also a perfect example of riff style swing popularised by the Count Basie Orchestra. This was recorded in 1937
Young would continue to make some great small group recordings in the late 30's and early 40's. (His work with Billie Holiday was a particular highlight and something I will tackle in a separate post.)
Lester Leaps In
An uptempo number from 1939 that would prove to be a big inspiration to those who emulated Lester Young's technique.
He left the Basie band in 1940 and was to spend the next few years recording in Los Angeles and New York before being drafted into the army in 1944. This was to prove to be a pivotal moment in his career and his life...