Being Prez: The Life & Music of Lester Young
Oxford University Press (2007)
Its been nearly five decades when Lester Young passed away and while he has been served by a few very scholarly biographies, the level of detail and technical discussion of his music may have put off some which is a shame since Young was a major innovator in jazz history. At a time when Coleman Hawkins was the man on tenor saxophone, Lester created a totally new style that influenced countless subsequent tenor players but saxophonists of all styles including the musical revolutionary Charlie Parker. British music journalist and saxophonist Dave Gelly has provided us with a concise consideration of Young’s life and music making use of the important works of Frank Büchmann-Muller, Louis Porter and Douglas Henry Daniels among others. Gelly takes us from Young’s youth, his father’s “abduction” of him from his mother’s home and growing up in the family band his father led to the last days as his health was failing him and his passing.
Lester Young’s journey includes playing as part of a circus in a minstrel show and also on the T.O.B.A. circuit. Then in 1926-27 the winter was spent in Minneapolis and while he later went back on tour with his father’s show, he dropped out rather than another tour in the Jim Crow south. Eventually he hooked up with Art Bronson’s Bostonians, and then the Blue Devils, Bennie Moten, a tour with King Oliver and eventually Bill ‘Count’ Basie. Lester established himself in the Kansas City scene and was a feared competitor in a jam session as recounted in the legendary one when Coleman Hawkins came to Kansas City. Not that long thereafter he was recruited for Fletcher Henderson’s Band but was never accepted there as the band wanted someone more in the line of Hawkins’ style.
A return to Kansas City led to his being back with Basie and the emergence of the Count and his band, who had their own travails to go through, including being induced to sign a horrible contract with Decca. But finally it led Lester into a recording studio where he waxed four sides for the American Record Combination under the name of Jones-Smith, since Basie was signed to Decca. Gelly writes: “This was the moment when Lester Young finally sidled out of the shadows, the moment when he ceased to be just a name, a rumor from the territory, a set of tall tales concerning jam sessions in bars and hotel lobbies and shoeshine parlors, and became a sound. For the first time, his music was caught, frozen onto shellac grooves and sent out into the world…”
About the first recording, Shoe Shine Boy, “Basie and the rhythm section play the introduction, setting tempo and mood, and then, after forty-five seconds, Lester young bursts forth. The first impression is of blazing energy and complete self-assurance. He plays with all the confidence and poise of a young man fully aware of his powers and in complete control of them. … Faced with such unhesitating fluency, it is easy to understand why other musicians at jam sessions would simply lay down their instruments and look goggle-eyed. … Here, constrained by the three-minute limit of the ten-inch, 78 RPM record, he confines himself to two choruses, sixty-four bars, lasting exactly one-minute, but it is obvious that he has barely hit his stride. The take was a perfect one… .”
From there on we follow Lester with the Basie Band as it plays various hotel rooms that the band perhaps was not suited for and start to make their marvelous recordings. He meets and begins a life-long friendship with Billie Holiday (some under Teddy Wilson’s name) and participates on a number of her finest recordings as well as plays behind her when she sings with Basie. Then there is his relationship with Texas tenor saxophonist Herschel Evans, whose style was more akin to Hawkins and while Basie exploited the contrasting styles on many recordings and performances. Evans alas was one of many jazz artists who died so prematurely. Lester would leave Basie and lead his own group, although as an individual he lacked the temperament and relied on assistance of others while producing more wonderful recordings.
There was the reunion with Basie and then the disaster of his army experience when he should never have been inducted and which he became the victim of southern racism. The army experience shaped his sensitive personality even more and after the war he would resume his career which Gelly traces while interweaving a thoughtful dissection of pertinent recordings, taking us to the legendary couple bars he played behind Billy Holiday at The Sound of Jazz television show and some final performances at the Blue Note Café in Paris (His time at the Blue Note was part of the inspiration for the character played by Dexter Gordon in the movie Round Midnight).
Gelly’s concise and lively written biography certainly presents Young’s formidable musical legacy to us as he notes, “The beauty of Lester Young’s music endures.” Included is a thoughtful selected discography of Young’s recordings that add to the value of this biography of one of the seminal artists of jazz history.
I wrote this review in late 2007 for Jazz & Blues Report but do not believe the review was published. I may have received a review copy from the publisher.