Lester Young changed jazz tenor sax playing with his beautiful, legato floating improvisations

Lester Young greatly influenced the course of tenor saxophone in jazz history. Young was one of the three most influential tenor sax players along with Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane. Lester Young ["Prez"] played a cool, laid-back tenor saxophone floating legato lines over the song instead of aggressively attacking a song with a big tone like then dominant Coleman Hawkins.

Lester Willis Young was born August 27, 1909 in Woodville, Mississippi and lived his first 10 years with his family in New Orleans. His musician father trained him on trumpet, violin, alto sax and drums. The family moved to Minneapolis and he played in family bands. He decided to concentrate on saxophone when he was thirteen years old. Prez played in family bands off and on and in other bands in the early 1930s around Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Minnesota. In 1934 he had settled in Kansas City and began playing with Count Basie.

That same year Young was asked to replace Coleman Hawkins in the Fletcher Henderson band. Fletcher Henderson's band [sadly under-recorded] is widely considered the leading big band of its era. Henderson's sidemen were unhappy that Prez did not play in the style of Hawkins and prevailed on Henderson to let him go. Henderson told his players that they were making a mistake. {And they were!) Lester Young then toured with Andy Kirk and had several other brief jobs.

Prez rejoined Count Basie's band in 1936 to star on the tenor saxophone. The recordings of Count Basie between 1936 and 1940 are often considered Basie's finest. Young's sax floated outside the rhythmic timing of the band in a legato style as he improvised. His sax playing was revolutionary in effect and largely started the cool style of sax playing and presaged Be-Bop.

In 1940 and 1941 Young recorded beautiful work with Billie Holiday and pianist Teddy Wilson. The phrasing of the singer and the sax player complemented each other and one can hear an emotional alchemy between them. It is said that Billie Holiday dubbed Young "Prez" [of the sax] and he in turn named her "Lady Day". He also made some important recordings with Nat King Cole in 1942. Recordings after that are sparse because of the American Federation of Musicians recording ban.

In December, 1943, Lester Young rejoined Count Basie for a little less than a year. He was drafted into the army in 1943 and was not put in an army band. He was stationed in the regular army in Alabama without a saxophone. Young was the victim of racist mistreatment in the army following the discovery of his mixed marriage and possession of alcohol and marijuana. He spent almost a year of his fifteen months in the army locked up and suffered physical abuse. His already precarious physical and mental health were gravely affected and he was never the same afterward.

Young joined Norman Granz Jazz at the Philharmonic group in 1946 and toured with them for the next dozen years. He also made many recordings for the Aladdin and Savoy labels. His playing had more emotional depth but it gradually deteriorated overall in the 1950s, although he still had flashes of brilliance. His mental health also deteriorated with increasing isolation and substance abuse. He died as a result of alcoholism in 1959.


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