Lester Young

1909 - 1959

Tenor Saxophone


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In the early 1930s, there was only one way to play the tenor saxophone in jazz, and that was Coleman Hawkins' way - big toned, forceful, unyielding. And then along came Lester Young with his quite different approach - light, glancing and airy - which completely upset the scheme of things. From the day in 1936 when Young first entered the recording studio with the Count Basie band, the tenor saxophone acquired two contrasting voices, and this duality has continued down to the present day.

Born into a musical family in Woodville, Miss. on Aug. 27, 1909, Lester Young toured throughout his teens with the family band lead by his father, Willis. After trying out many instruments Young setteled on the saxophone by the age of 13. Between 1927 and 1935 he played with many regional bands, as well as brief periods with King Oliver and Fletcher Henderson. By then Kansas City had become his home, and he worked with Bennie Moten and finally Basie. It was with the Count Basie band of the late 1930s that Young definitely established his reputation. He showed the jazz world something it had never before imagined: that all tenor saxophone players did not have to sound like Hawkins; Drawing on the same basic harmonic and rhythm principles as his contemporaries, he offered a new sound and sense of time and movement that established a cooler, more laid back alternative that ultimately spread to the other principal horns in jazz. In Chicago Basie and Young recorded "Lady Be Good", a record that would weld them in a musical partnership neither would ever escape, even after years working apart. But Young had an alternate life in the studio with Billie Holiday, who recorded with pianist Teddy Wilson and key members of the Basie band such as Jo Jones and Buck Clayton. The musical relationship Young built with Holiday would be as strong and enduring as the one with Basie, and one which produced several of his finest solos. Young (nicknamed Pres) left Basie in 1941 to work with his brother Lee in Los Angeles. Norman Granz used Young, Nat Cole and Red Callender on his first record session in 1942 ("Body And Soul," I Can't Get Started"). There were also memorable sessions for Keynote ("Afternoon Of A Basieite") and Commodore ("Jo Jo," "I Got Rhythm"). Young returned to Basie at the end of 1943, filmed the jazz classic "Jammin' The Blues" and remained with the band until he was drafted for military service. After the war Young began the freelance career that would continue until his death. He made many Jazz At The Philharmonic tours and recorded often, first for Aladdan and Savoy, then Clef and Verve, the Granz labels that caught most of his later work. The best of them were Pres And Teddy and Jazz Giants '56, both made in January 1956. Young died March 15, 1959, in New York, shortly after returning from Paris, where he had recorded his final album (Lester Young in Paris, Verve). Many decades after his death, Pres is still considered a major influence on post-war jazz and a key player in the development of the 1950s "cool" style. Along with Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane he must be considered among the four most important tenor saxophonists of all time.

Recommended recordings
The Lester Young Story Proper
with the Oscar Peterson Trio Polygram Records
The Jazz Giants Polygram Records
Pres and Teddy Polygram Records
The complete Aladdin sessions Blue Note 3278
A fine Romance Vol 1 & 2 Definitive Classics
Ken Burns Jazz: Lester Young Polygram Records
Complete Lester Young on Verve Polygram Records