Born: August 27, 1909
Died: March 15, 1958
After Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young was the first star saxophonist in jazz, an acknowledged influence on Dexter Gordon, Illinois Jacquet, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Stan Getz, among many others.
As Gordon said, "Hawkins had done everything possible; he was the master of the horn. But when Prez appeared we all began to listen to him. He had an entirely new sound, the one we had been waiting for, the first one to really tell a story on the horn."
In a time of frenetic, polyhorn-driven jazz, Lester would leap in with soft and sure melodic solos that were the eye of the hurricaine. "Beauty was his sole objective in life: 'That was real pretty' was the ultimate compliment he could pay you. As one of his sidemen once said, 'Prez got that light tone because that's the way he wanted everything to be. Once I bought him a pair of shoes, then visited him one day and found them in the wastebasket. Then I realized--they were hard-soled shoes and he wouldn't wear anything but moccasins or slippers. Everything had to be soft or gentle, else he wanted no part of it.'" -Leonard Feather
Young played with the Count Basie Orchestra beginning in 1934, and in 1937 critic Jon Hammond called him "without a doubt the greatest tenor player in the country...the most original and inventive saxophonist I have ever heard." His friend and collaborator Billie Holiday named him "The Prez," perhaps short for President of the Viper's Club or for FDR. Young dubbed her "Lady Day" and is credited with naming money "bread" among other hipsterisms like "cool" and "You dig?"
In 1944 Young won the Down Beat magazine poll for best tenor saxophone, the same year he was drafted into the army. There he told an Army physician he'd smoked marijuana every day since 1933. He soon underwent a court martial and imprisonment for marijuana possession, including nearly a year in "disciplinary barracks," an ordeal from which he never fully recovered. At his first recording session afterwards he produced his masterpiece "These Foolish Things," and went on to play with the likes of Charlie Christain, Jack Teagarden and Miles Davis. Later he was frequently hospitalized for alcoholism and died of the disease just before he turned 50.
"Long live gentle Lester, who lived life despite what it had done to him, and who never stopped reaching out, gifts in hand. To hell with those who call your strength weakness because you turned the pain inward, upon yourself rather than on others, and offer simplistic explanations for your singular fate. Perhaps they envy you your immortality." -Dan Morgenstern
Rolling Stone pronounced Young "quite likely the hippest dude that ever lived." B.B. King said, "Prez invented cool." His saxophone is on display at the Smithsonian, which issued a tribute on the centennial of his birth this year.
Source: Lester Leaps In: The Life and Times of Lester "Pres" Young by Douglas Henry Daniels.
With thanks to Les Scher of "Lester Leaps In," Sunday nights from 7-9 on KMUD radio.
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