Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Lester "Prez" Young Turns 100
from the article,
Young’s impact on the language of music was even greater. Before tenorman Coleman Hawkins led the emergence of the saxophone as a serious instrument in the 1920s, most sax players “habitually produced either a kind of rubbery belch or a low, mooing noise,” wrote Young biographer Dave Gelly. Young came along right behind Hawkins, and electrified the jazz world with his dexterity and imagination.
“He redefined the instrument,” says the tenor saxophonist and jazz scholar Loren Schoenberg, who is also executive director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem (a Smithsonian affiliate). His most fundamental change involved a subtle relaxation of jazz phrasing and rhythm. “A lot of lesser players depend on the friction of a spiky rhythm to make it seem as if it’s ‘hot,’ ” Schoenberg says. “Young found a way to play that had a more even rhythm, and yet he swung like crazy. This called for great ingenuity and great genius.”
Young mastered the art of improvising beautiful melodies, which he played with a velvety tone and an effortless, floating quality. Yet like a great dancer, he never lost sight of the beat. A bluesman at heart, he could swoop and moan and play with edge, but more typically, the sensation was one of “pulsating ease,” as critic Nat Hentoff once described it. At slower tempos, he radiated a more wistful, bruised spirit. “In all of Lester Young’s finest solos,” Albert Murray writes in his classic study, Stomping the Blues, “there are overtones of unsentimental sadness that suggest he was never unmindful of human vulnerability.”
Young was raised in and around New Orleans in a musical family that performed in minstrel shows and carnivals. His father, Willis Handy Young, was an accomplished music educator; he doted on Lester but also often belt-whipped the boy, prompting him to run away 10 or 12 times, according to his younger brother Lee. The family moved to Minneapolis in 1919 and performed across the American heartland. At a stop in Harlan, Kentucky, the Youngs came close to being lynched; apparently, the audience had been expecting a white band. In 1927, at age 18, Lester ran away for good rather than face the indignities of a planned tour of Texas and the Deep South. He latched on with territory bands (dance bands that would travel a given region) such as Walter Page’s Blue Devils, several of whose stars—including bassist Page, singer Jimmy Rushing, drummer Jo Jones and pianist Count Basie—would later form the nucleus of Basie’s popular, ultra-swinging orchestra. The novelist and jazz writer Ralph Ellison remembered hearing Young jamming in an Oklahoma City shoeshine parlor with members of the Blue Devils as early as 1929, “his head thrown back, his horn even then outthrust.”
Young’s prowess was well known by 1934, when he first joined the Basie band in Kansas City; by the time he left, in 1940, he had established himself as one of the top stars in jazz. Most of Young’s greatest records date from this period and the early ’40s, when he teamed up with Holiday, Goodman, Charlie Christian, Nat King Cole and a number of excellent small groups composed mainly of Basie-ites. Young later said that his favorite solo from the Basie years came on a sprightly tune called Taxi War Dance. “The entire solo is 32 bars long; it takes exactly 35 seconds,” writes Gelly, “and it’s a masterpiece to stand alongside Armstrong’s West End Blues and Parker’s Ko-Ko. No one else could have done it because no else’s mind worked that way.”
By all accounts, Young was a painfully shy and sensitive loner who hated conflict of any kind. He also had a self-destructive streak and blithely ignored his health. “Prez always had a bottle of liquor in his pocket,” said pianist Jimmy Rowles.
Young was sliding into a long decline by his early 30s, probably accelerated by his hellish Army experience. He was court-martialed in early 1945 for marijuana possession, then confined for nearly a year in disciplinary barracks, an experience he called “one mad nightmare.” He bounced back to record some of his most successful records and tour with the all-star Jazz at the Philharmonic bands, but he was hospitalized with a nervous breakdown in 1955. Soon after returning from an engagement in Paris, Young died in the Alvin Hotel in Manhattan on March 15, 1959, just months before his old friend and musical soulmate Billie Holiday.
He remains a powerful influence on the music. Wayne Shorter, Lee Konitz, Joe Lovano and Mark Turner—an elite list of contemporary saxophonists—have all professed deep admiration for Young, much as their predecessors did.
The late pianist John Lewis played in Young’s band in the early ’50s at about the time Lewis was forming the Modern Jazz Quartet. A kindred spirit, he said he regarded Young as “a living, walking poet” whose wounds in life had never healed. “Lester is an extremely gentle, kind, considerate person,” he told Hentoff in 1956 or ‘57. “He’s always concerned about the underdog. He always wants to help somebody. The way he seems to see being is: ‘Here we are. Let’s have a nice time.’ ”
Posted by Chris Mansel at 10:09 PM