"Anyone who doesn't play by Lester is just wrong!" (Brew Moore)
If you listen to the first track Lester Young ever recorded, "Shoe Shine Boy" (1936), and contrast this with the final track twenty some years later, "Tea For Two" (1959), the differences are stark. The former demonstrates Young's innovative, airy tone. The latter seems a little disjointed and breathy. Unsurprising, as he was a very sick man at this time and, even though he was only 49, he had lived a life twice over. Many think the turning point in his life was due to the hard times he suffered when he was drafted into the military. The regular army was no place for a creative soul like Lester Young. He was court-martialed for possession of marijuana and alcohol. His one year army career was spent in the detention barracks in Alabama followed by a dishonourable discharge. It's an easy tack to take - genius before the army, burnt out after the army. I don't believe such a simplistic view deserves any credit. True artists evolve and Lester Young was a true artist. His experiences only added another colour to his palette.
Here is a great recording of an NPR interview with Lester's biographer Douglas Daniels. He gives an extremely eloquent critique of his time in the army and the effect on his playing.
I personally have found the recordings he made since December 1945 to be some of the finest I have listened to since embarking on this project. Some of my personal favourites have included the recordings he made with Nat King Cole and Buddy Rich (known as the Lester Young Trio). Check out the superb interaction between the three on "I've Found A New Baby". The song demonstrates the swing tradition that they came from but is at the same time extremely innovative.
Lester continued to make superb recordings throughout the rest of the 40's and 50's for the Verve label under the watchful eye of producer Norman Granz. These recordings produced superb collaborations with the likes of Oscar Peterson, Harry "Sweets" Edison, Roy Eldridge and Teddy Wilson to name but a few. His lifestyle would ultimately restrict his technique but I refute any charge that he didn't play anything but from the heart.
Lester was interviewed on tape towards the end of his life by a young French jazz enthusiast named Francois Postif. These rare recordings show Young reminiscing on his career and offer insight into his opinions on the world of jazz up to that time. One quote remains telling: "I don't like a lot of noise - trumpets and trombones. I'm looking for something soft. It's got to be sweetness man, you dig?"
To finish up here is one of the few videos of Lester playing "Mean To Me" (with Willie "The Lion" Smith on piano). The song begins in quite a pedestrian manner until Lester instructs the drummer to add "a little tinky boom, ya dig"! Great stuff.