In 1909, a jazz master was born, one whose legacy should get more attention than it does. Maybe it’s because Lester Young played with Count Basie for so long that he didn’t become quite the individual star he might have. Maybe it’s because his life was short and his recording output unusually small. But never mind, here’s your chance to train your ears on the wonderful sounds of this giant of the tenor sax.
Young’s father was a bandleader and his brother, Lee Young, played the drums. His family left their native Mississippi and moved to New Orleans when Lester was about five, and he learned several instruments to play in the family band. Besides violin and trumpet, he also messed around on alto saxophone. But soon he discovered the power of the tenor sax. At 18, he moved to Kansas City to play that instrument in a popular touring band called the Blue Devils, under the direction of bassist Walter Page.
Because Page also played with the Count Basie Orchestra, he was able to introduce Young to that maestro. The resulting collaboration was the stuff of jazz legends. Despite taking intermittent time off to test out other bands, Young kept returning to Basie, and eventually landed there long-term. He had a very different style from the frenetic tenor sax sound popular at the time. Instead, Young’s sound was grounded and calm, serving as a sonic core for Basie’s high-energy arrangements. He also played clarinet with quicksilver virtuosity. His clarinet recordings tend to be small-group sessions, including with Basie’s Kansas City Seven.
Young was a key member of the Harlem jazz scene in the 1930s, becoming one of Billie Holiday’s closest friends. It was Holiday who nicknamed him The President, or Pres. He and pianist Teddy Wilson played on some of her most famous records. After returning to civilian life after a short stint in the Army, alcoholism became an increasing problem for Young; in 1959 he died from that disease at the age of 49.
In his short career, “Pres” re-imagined what the tenor saxophone could be. Enjoy these eight great tracks by Lester Young.
- Track: “Roseland Shuffle”
Album: Count Basie: The Complete Decca Recordings
It’s only right to start where Young began, as part of the Count Basie orchestra. Especially in early recordings, Basie often separated a small group from the larger band, sort of like a jazz concerto grosso. Here the featured players are Basie on piano, Buck Clayton on trumpet, Lester Young and Herschel Evans on tenor sax, Walter Page on bass, and Jo Jones on drums.
The song “Roseland Shuffle” has the breathless “jump” rhythm that Basie popularized to the point that it practically defined swing.
- Track: “Back to the Land”
Album: The Lester Young Buddy Rich Trio
Young didn’t make a lot of records in the 1940s, partly because of legal problems facing small labels at that time, and partly because of World War II. But he did manage to spend some time in the studio with the great drummer Buddy Rich as part of a trio completed by pianist Nat “King” Cole (who somehow got left out of the title). The recording was unreleased for a decade in the Norgran Records vault but eventually saw the light of day in 1957 when Verve bought that catalog.
The track list is entirely jazz standards except for the first tune, “Back to the Land,” an original composition by Young. It’s a great example of his smooth, sultry sound.
- Track: “Love Me or Leave Me”
Album: Pres and Teddy
Verve’s founder, Norman Granz, produced this recording of Young sitting in as part of the Teddy Wilson Quartet. Jo Jones joins on drums and Gene Ramey on bass. Young’s physical and mental health were in pretty bad shape by this point, making him very difficult to work with. But his playing is at its height.
“Love Me or Leave Me” is a song from a 1928 Broadway musical called Whoopee!, turned into a best-selling record by the show’s star, Ruth Etting. The tuneful number became a jazz standard for its inventive melody, which Young glides around with grace and expressiveness.
- Track: “Mean to Me”
Album: Pres Is Blue
Label: Charlie Parker Music
Despite his close association with swing king Count Basie, Young was a prince of bebop in his small-group projects. Pres Is Blue was recorded live at the Savoy Ballroom in New York, but not released until 1963, four years after Young’s death. What it (severely) lacks in sound production it makes up for in authentic nightclub vibe. You can practically hear the waitstaff taking drink orders. And, of course, Pres has a lot to say with his horn. He’s joined by Kenny Drew on piano, Jesse Drakes on trumpet (who has a particularly good solo on this track), longtime collaborator Jo Jones, and bassist Aaron Bell.
“Mean to Me,” made famous by Billie Holiday, is the first track; you can hear the whole album here:
- Track: “Confessin’”
Album: The President
Pianist John Lewis, drummer Bill Clark, and bassist Joe Shulman round out the quartet on this outstanding album. It’s hard to pick the best track – “Stardust” and “September in the Rain” were serious contenders – but this version of “I’m Confessin’ That I Love You” (called simply “Confessin’” here) puts Young’s centered and imaginative improvisation on full display.
There’s an on-and-off breathiness in his sound on this track that helps give the illusion that the melody line still has its romantic lyrics. It also brings to mind the vocal sound of his dear friend Billie Holiday.
- Track: “Willow Weep for Me”
Album: Lester’s Here
Billed as Lester Young and His Orchestra, the lineup on Lester’s Here is mostly stalwart colleagues like Jo Jones, Jesse Drakes, and John Lewis. But this particular track swaps in Gildo Mahones on piano and Connie Kay on drums.
“Willow Weep for Me” is one of those achingly melancholy melodies so perfect for gentle bebop interpretation. Notice how, even in the first line, Young stretches and alters the rhythm, making it his own. For the last chorus, he turns it into a waltz.
- Track: “St. Tropez”
Album: Going for Myself
Young made several records with pianist Oscar Peterson. This one also includes trumpeter and fellow Basie veteran Harry “Sweets” Edison. Louie Bellson is on drums, with Ray Brown on bass, and Herb Ellis on guitar.
The three musicians wrote “St. Tropez” together for this album. This one features Young on clarinet, a rare treat. Just like his sax work, Young’s clarinet playing has an internal calm and focus, making his moments of broken tones even more exciting, like pebbles tossed into a mirror-still pond.
- Track: “Romping”
Album: Laughin’ to Keep from Cryin’
The combination of Young with Edison was so good that Verve encouraged them to do more. In the spirit of doubling down on success, this album – the last that Young made in the studio – includes a second trumpeter, Roy Eldridge. It’s a fascinating choice, since Edison’s and Eldridge’s styles were very different, with the latter known for his harmonic experimentation. His is the second trumpet solo, starting around 3:00. The guitarist is Herb Ellis and the pianist Hank Jones.
“Romping” is a 12-minute hard-bop jam composed by Young. His thoughtful solo (starting at 8:30) defies the weakening effects of the advanced alcoholism that would soon kill him. He remained a musical giant until the end.