Lester Young Biography

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b. 27 August 1909, Woodville, Mississippi, USA, d. 15 March 1959, New York City.

Born into a musical family, Lester grew up in New Orleans and was taught to play a variety of instruments by his father. The family moved to Minneapolis in 1919 and he started playing drums in the family band, later switching to alto sax. Around 1928 he left to tour with Art Bronson's Bostonians, adopting the tenor saxophone. He stayed with Bronson until 1930, with interludes playing with the family and various other bands. 1931 found him playing in various clubs around Minneapolis but in 1932 he joined Walter Page's "Original Blue Devils" and toured extensively. Towards the end of 1933 the Blue Devils were disbanded and Young was one of several members of the band who joined Bennie Moten in Kansas City. During the next few years Young played in the bands of Moten, King Oliver, Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson, Andy Kirk and others. In 1936 he rejoined Basie in Kansas City and made his first recordings at the age of 27, when his radically new style was already set. He remained with Basie for the next four years, touring, broadcasting and recording. He also recorded in small groups directed by Teddy Wilson and others and appeared on several classic record dates backing Billie Holiday (she nicknamed him 'Pres' , for president of the saxophone, while he called her 'Lady Day'). In the early 40s he freelanced, and sometimes led, small groups in the Los Angeles area alongside his brother Lee Young, and musicians such as Red Callender, Nat 'King' Cole and Al Sears. In 1943 he returned briefly to the Basie band, and also worked with Dizzy Gillespie. He had just finished filming the classic jazz film 'Jammin' the Blues' in September 1944 when the draft board caught up with him. After periods in hospital and the stockade he emerged in December 1945 to the new trend of bebop. At this time he also joined Granz's 'Jazz At The Philharmonic' roadshow, remaining for a number of years. He also led small groups for club and record dates, toured the USA and visited Europe. A withdrawn, moody figure with a dry and slightly anarchic sense of humor, Young perpetuated his own mythology during his lifetime, partly through developing a language of his own (he coined the use of 'bread' to denote money). Despite a long period of poor health he continued to record and make concert appearances up to the end. He died in 1959 shortly after returning from Paris.

One of the seminal figures in jazz history and a major influence in creating the musical atmosphere in which bop could flourish, Young's playing was at the time the cause of controversy. Only his middle period appears to have earned unreserved critical acclaim. In recent years, however, thanks in part to a more enlightened body of critical opinion, allied to perceptive biographies (by Dave Gelly and Lewis Porter), few observers now have anything other than praise for his entire output. In the early years of jazz the saxophone family were not favored and only the clarinet among the reed instruments maintained a front-line position. Coleman Hawkins gave the saxophone a higher profile, changing perceptions of the instrument and spawning many imitators of his rich and resonant sound. When Young appeared on the wider jazz scene in the early 1930's, favoring a light, acerbic, dry tone, he was in striking contrast to the majestic Hawkins. He later conceded the early influence of recordings by Frankie Trambauer and Jimmy Dorsey . Whilst many disliked what they heard a few appreciated that Young's floating melodic style represented a distinctive and revolutionary approach to jazz. The solos he recorded with the Basie band included many which, for all their brevity - some no more than eight bars long - display an astonishing talent in full flight. On his first record date, on 9 October 1936, made by a small group drawn from the Basie band ('Jones-Smith Inc.'), he plays with what appears at first hearing to be startling simplicity. Despite this impression, the performances, especially of 'Shoe Shine Swing' and 'Lady Be Good', are masterpieces seldom equaled, perhaps not even by Young himself. He recorded many outstanding solos with the full Basie band such as 'Honeysuckle Rose', 'Taxi War Dance' (a favourite of Young's) and 'Every Tub' and with the small group, the Kansas City Seven, on 'Dickie's Dream' and 'Lester Leaps In'. On all of these recordings, Young's solos clearly indicate that, for all their emotional depths, a great talent is at work. His sessions with Billie Holiday from 1937 - 1941 are essential listening. The empathy displayed by these two is remarkable and at times magical, with 'Me, Myself And I', 'Mean To Me', 'When You're Smiling', 'Foolin' Myself' and 'This Year's Kisses' being particular highlights. His first recordings after leaving the army in 1945, which include 'DB Blues' and 'These Foolish Things', retain all the elegance and style of a consummate master, confounding those critics who suggested he was left broken after his harsh treatment. His playing had changed but only because he had moved on. A 1956 session with Teddy Wilson, on which Young is joined by Roy Eldridge and Jo Jones ('The Jazz Giants'), is perhaps the highlight of his last years. Long-overlooked recordings made at about the same time with the Bill Potts Trio, during an engagement in a bar in Washington, DC, show him to be as inventive as ever. It is impossible to overstate Young's importance in the development of jazz. Many of the developments in bop and post-bop were influenced by Young's fascination for melody and the smooth, flowing lines with which he transposed his thoughts into beautiful, articulate sounds.


The accompanying pages simply list the recording sessions. Some of those which have found critical acclaim or are my particular favourites are highlighted. Complete discographical details have been published elsewhere (see below) but I've included a list of CDs covering the majority of the sessions listed. Where alternate takes are indicated these have been issued on LP but not necessarily on CD. For live recordings which may not have been reissued on CD refer to Lewis Porter's book for a listing of LPs.

Any comments on presentation or omissions would be appreciated.

Clive Yeates


1. Lewis Porter, Lester Young. Twayne Publishers, 1985.
An in-depth academic appraisal with a comprehensive listing of LP re-issues.

2. Dave Gelly, Lester Young (Jazz Masters Series). Spellmount,1984.
Short Biography with a selective discography.

3. Jan Evensmo, The Tenor Saxophone And Clarinet Of Lester Young, 1936-1949.

4. Frank Buchmann-Moller, You Just Fight For Your Life: The Story of Lester Young. New York: Praeger Press, 1990.
The closest thing to a reliable biography

5. Frank Buchmann-Moller, You Got To Be Original Man! The Music of Lester Young.
Greenwood Press. Wesport, Conn. 1990 (out of print)
A companion to the biography above with a guide to all of Young's recorded solos - the most comprehensive 'solography'.

6. Lewis Porter , A Lester Young Reader. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.
Articles, interviews, reviews and anecdotes.

7. Max Harrison, Paul Oliver, Alun Morgan and Albert McCarthy, Jazz On Record - A Critical Guide to the First 50 Years: 1917-1967. London, Hanover, 1968.

8. Max Harrison, Charles Fox and Eric Thacker, The Essential Jazz Records- Vol1: Ragtime to Swing. London, Mansell, 1984.

9. Max Harrison, Eric Thacker and Stuart Nicholson, The Essential Jazz Records - Vol2: Modernism to Postmodernism. London, Mansell, 2000.
Has an appraisal of the Alladin Sessions (1945-1948).

Last updated September 10, 2000