Personalities | Lester Young | Thirties | Jazz & Blues

Of all the great solo architects of the 1930s, none personified the smooth, penetrating sweep through space and time more ideally or organically than tenor saxophonist Lester Young. His fluid, unforced phrasing and undulating attack were matched to a cool, satin skin of sound that seemed to dispel all friction by decompressing the emotional density of the prevailing tenors into a piping, almost hollow echo.

Young’s streamlined contours would have risen to the top in any context, but when joining with the elegant modernity of the Count Basie rhythm section in 1936, Young found his perfect soul mate; he defined the essence of swing at its most pure and became one of the most influential jazz voices of the decade.

A Musical Background

Born in Woodville, Mississippi on 27 August 1909, Lester Willis Young grew up in a musical family that toured and performed together. He experimented with the trumpet, violin and drums as a boy before finally focusing on the tenor saxophone by 1922. Four years later the Young family relocated to Minneapolis, Minnesota, but Lester grew restless working under his father’s hand. When he turned 18 he went out on his own, touring with a variety of regional bands in the upper Midwest. He worked briefly with the Blue Devils in 1930 and with Basie for the first time in the Bennie Moten Band in 1934. But Young didn’t stay long; he moved through several other groups, then returned to Basie in 1936, just as the bandleader was on the verge of being discovered by John Hammond.

Early Records

Young’s career rose swiftly with Basie’s, and vice versa. His record debut, made with a small Basie group in October 1936, produced two of the great swing classics of the decade – ‘Lady Be Good’ and ‘Shoe Shine Boy’ – and there would be more where that came from. A steady stream of Basie band records poured out, plus many small group sessions, produced by Hammond, that brought Young together with Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson, Benny Goodman, Charlie Christian and others. The 54 sides made with Holiday between January 1937 and November 1938 carried a particular and persistent fascination – and not merely because the records caught both artists at the peak of their powers. They also seemed to capture a quality of looming melancholy in the relationship of two gentle but flawed temperaments, for whom doom due to fragility seemed written on the wind. The music survives in a nimbus of legend.

Young’s dry, feathery lyricism and fluid laws of motion immediately set him apart from the flock, as the other musicians recognized a new and original tenor voice. His ideas were oblique and unexpected. He would spread a phrase out over several bars, then suddenly pause over a lingering, out-of-tempo note, or interrupt himself with an impulsive arching swoop. In a broadcast performance of ‘I Got Rhythm’ from the Southland Café, Young bounces along on a sleek, unbroken F over four...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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