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Lester Young 

 

 

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      Lester "Prez" Young was one of the giants of the tenor saxophone.  He was the greatest improviser between Coleman Hawkins and Louis Armstrong of the 1920s and Charlie Parker in the 1940s.  From the beginning, he set out to be different:   He had his own lingo;  In the Forties, he grew his hair out.  The other tenor players held their saxophones upright in front of them, so Young held his out to the side, kind of like a flute (see picture above).  Then, there was the way he played:   Hawkins played around harmonic runs.  He played flurries of notes and had a HUGE tone that the other tenor players of the day emulated.  Young used a softer tone that resulted In a soft, light sound (if you didn't know better, you would think the two were playing different instruments). Young used less notes and slurred notes together, creating more melodic solos.  He played the ordinary in an extraordinary way, using a lot of subtleties to produce music that Billie Holiday said flips you out of your seat with surprise.

        Young moved to Kansas City in the 1930s, the hotbed of jazz during that time, and played in various groups, including King Oliver, Benny Moten, and the traveling Fletcher Henderson orchestra.  One of the great jazz myths says that Hawkins, who was the star player of Henderson's orchestra missed a show.   Young filled in for him and played so wonderfully, that Hawkins went looking for Young, with sax in hand, to teach the young whippersnapper a lesson.  They dueled all night and into the next morning.  Hawkins left for Europe and Young took over in Henderson's orchestra.  However, the ending wasn't happy -- Young was hired to play like Hawkins, and that wasn't Young's thing--he could replace Hawkins, but he wasn't going to impersonate him--so he moved back to Kansas City and in 1936, he joined the Count Basie Orchestra and stayed there until 1949.  While he recorded some his finest material with Basie, he didn't record all of his finest recordings with Count.  He recorded a fine series of records with Billie Holiday.  Within 4 years, he had played in top-rated big band AND small group settings!  Some sources say that he gave her the nickname "Lady Day" and she gave him the nickname "Prez" (others say he became the new Prez-ident when he defeated Hawkins).

        In 1944, Young was drafted in the Army.   Going from bohemian to rigid institutional life didn't set well with Young and when he was caught smoking marijuana, he was court-martialed and spent months in detention.   He came back a fine player, but his light, airy, happy tone had left and his music had a darker side to it.  He joined Norman Granz' Jazz at the Philharmonic tour, but he let his health decline, and drank far more often and was hospitalized.  He had an unsuccessful engagement in Paris in 1959, and returned to the States a sick man and died a year later, at the age of 49.  His life (and Bud Powell's) was the basis for Bernard Tavernier's film Round Midnight, and the character based on him was played by Dexter Gordon.   

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