In the line of tenor saxophone players who wind through modern jazz, the place of Lester Young is precious if not quite peerless. His smooth-as-silk solos in the Count Basie band of the late 1930s found a plateau beyond the driving blues beat that powered the Kansas City sound, the town where he found his chops.
As the seminal recording producer John Hammond recalled, 'He would launch himself headlong into improvisations which, with each new chorus, renewed themselves as if by magic; it was as though his energy and originality knew no bounds. Lester could improve on the same theme for an hour at a stretch, without once giving the impression that he might be running out of ideas. His features evinced not the slightest emotion, and his whole being was concentrated in the music."
Born in Mississippi in 1909, he spent his first 11 years in New Orleans. The son of a Creole bandleader, Young was traumatically uprooted when his father kidnapped the boy and his sister as he left town with another woman and his band, the New Orleans Strutters, which was performing for a circus. Tearing away the 'shy, sensitive little boy with a deep mutual attachment to his mother [was] unforgivable," writes the English jazz critic Dave Gelly in a new biography Being Prez: The Life and Music of Lester Young (Oxford University Press).
Ten years passed before Young saw his mother again. With few family records to draw upon, Gelly has no drama to pack into the account of that reunion, which is mentioned merely in passing. Yet the impact of that life-altering displacement can hardly be overstated.
Young came of age on the road, honing his craft between pop songs and the blues. Breaking with his father by age 21, he carried the hard baggage of emotional loss through a succession of relationships that failed to achieve much permanence. Perhaps it was that rambling existential nature, creating destiny anew each day, that drove him to find poetry in his instrumental voice.
His breakthrough came in 1936, when Hammond recorded an ensemble led by Basie with the singer Jimmy Rushing. 'For the first time, his music was caught frozen onto shellac grooves, and sent out into the world," writes Gelly. On the first piece, a show tune called 'Hot Chocolates," Young let it out with 'blazing energy and complete self assurance" " a sound that was 'round and contained, with virtually no edge at all. It didn't cut, it floated."
A respected jazz critic for The Observer in London, Gelly compensates for the lack of in-depth material on his nomadic protagonist with a deft hand in describing the music, invariably the toughest task in writing about jazz. Of a 1939 Columbia recording with Basie, 'Twelfth Street Rag," Gelly observes: 'His mastery of rhythm is particularly impressive here, as he drops lazy, lagging phrases into an energetic and mobile improvised line, and there is a marvelous variety of tone, including a brief, machine-gun burst of false fingering in the second chorus."
'Prez" is what Billie Holiday affectionately called Young " after President Franklin Roosevelt, 'the greatest man around," she said. The shortened nickname 'still means what it was meant to mean," she insisted. Prez called her Lady Day. Their relationship was exuberant and, according to Gelly, everything but sexual; as her star began to rise, Prez soldiered on with Basie until a falling out over pay. He moved to Los Angeles in the early 1940s and was reunited onstage with Holiday, a period in which he moved from swinging the blues to a tender romanticism in ballads, as in 'I Want a Little Girl" and 'Body and Soul."
Back in New York in '44, Young returned to Basie's band and subsequently recorded a ballad that Gelly calls one of his masterpieces, 'Ghost of a Chance." Midway through his 30s, Prez was in his prime, and 'something of a dandy," as Whitney Balliett wrote. 'He wore ankle-length coats and porkpie hats." For all that, there is an essence of the man, an underlying mystery that eludes the reader. Prez did not exactly leave a trail of material about himself.
That same year, 1944, he was drafted. Lester Young's stint in the Army nearly destroyed him. A psychiatrist reported him to be in 'a constitutional psychopathic state manifested by drug addiction [marijuana, barbituates], chronic alcoholism and nomadism." Imagine forcing James Booker into the Army! Lester Young was less manic, but by all accounts a man so ill-suited for military life as to question the Army's sanity for keeping him. When pot and pills were found in his locker, he was detained, court-martialed and sentenced to a year in prison.
Opinions divide on whether his work in the 14 years after his 1945 release matched the quality of his younger, effervescent recordings. Gelly scoffs at the notion that he was washed up. 'Lester's light, floating tone, the clear uninsistent line, the rhythmic subtlety " all these characteristics can be traced through later generations of tenor saxophonists."
Young joined the ranks of jazzmen touring in Europe when his health broke a final time in 1959; he died in New York. It remains to be said that the hard-luck nomad who delivered a timeless sound onstage took a huge beating in life. In the end, what counted and what remains is the music. Writes Gelly: 'Whether he is bursting joyously loose from the choreography of the Basie ensemble, conducting one of his own half-loving, half-kidding conversations with Lady Day, or deftly turning a familiar melody into something distinctly his own, there is never any doubt that this is purposeful, immediate, constantly surprising, serious music, and its seriousness is self-evident."