Opinion | How Lester Young Altered the Course of Music
John Edward Hasse
He looked different, he played different, he was different. Lester Young stood out: green eyes, reddish hair that earned him the boyhood nickname “Red,” a porkpie hat, an ankle-length black coat, his saxophone held at a 45-degree angle. In a musical field known for individuality, he was an outsider’s nonconformist, swinging to his own beat: shy, sensitive, averse to loudness and ostentation, inventor of his own eccentric lingo, and progenitor of cool as hipness in music, language and persona. If he didn’t invent “cool” to mean “hip,” he popularized it and other phrases that spread well beyond jazz. Most important, he created a poetic new aesthetic, altering the course of music. Sixty years after his death, the tenor saxophonist continues to rank as one of the most influential jazzmen in history.
Born in Mississippi in 1909 and raised in nearby New Orleans, by the time he was a teenager he was touring with a family band led by his father. But before he was 20 he decided to go out on his own. He went on the road, living for a time in Albuquerque, N.M., Minneapolis, and then in Kansas City, Mo., a jazz hotbed hosting dozens of nightclubs for listening and dancing. As part of Count Basie’s soon-to-be-discovered, quintessential swing band, Young made his first recordings. In 1936, on “Lady, Be Good,” he plays a wondrous two-chorus solo that sparked a sensation among musicians.
His solo on Basie’s 1937 “One O’Clock Jump”—Young hits a B-flat 20 times in a row—was memorized by legions of tenor sax players. Young’s 1939 showpiece “Lester Leaps In”—rife with rhythmic surprises—spotlights his superior note choices and interlinking melodic ideas. These recordings have much to offer listeners today.
Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and Gerry Mulligan in 1957 Photo: Getty Images
A decade earlier, cornetist Louis Armstrong had crystallized the model jazz solo; Lester Young—a brilliant soloist and melodist—reimagined how an extempore statement could sound. Young’s feathery-floating tone; dearth of vibrato; long, flowing lines; and seemingly endless melodic ideas grabbed listeners’ ears. Inspired by the white saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer, Young presented a lyrical contrast to the hot style of the dominant tenor saxophonist, Coleman Hawkins. Young’s approach played down harmonies and emphasized melodic invention. He nailed his solos on the first take, spinning out golden melody lines at the speed of thought.
Achieving a balance between lyrical and earthy, between poise and punch, Young’s new paradigm made him the most influential jazz musician between the rise of Armstrong in the 1920s and saxophonist Charlie Parker in the mid-1940s.
Young and singer Billie Holiday forged a warm friendship, crowning each other with admiring nicknames. He called her “Lady Day” (short for Holiday) and she dubbed him “The President” or “Prez”—the top man in her realm. Their recordings of 1937-41—such as “Mean to Me” and “I Must Have That Man”—still sparkle after 80 years.
If Young’s sound was essentially romantic, his life arced toward the tragic. In 1944, shortly after appearing in a celebrated, arty movie short, “Jammin’ the Blues,” he was drafted into the U.S. Army, one of the worst possible fates for someone introverted, soft-spoken, detached and suffering from epilepsy. The Army charged him with smoking marijuana and placed him in disciplinary barracks for nine months, a trauma from which he never fully recovered: “a nightmare,” he said, “man, one mad nightmare.”
As Young’s alcoholism grew worse in the 1950s, his tone grew huskier, his vibrato wider, and his pitch range lower. He died on March 15, 1959, at age 49, ending a recording career of just 23 years. Four months later, his musical soulmate Billie Holiday expired in a Harlem hospital at age 44.
It’s been 60 years since the influential Young died Photo: Getty Images
Young influenced scores of saxophonists—such as Stan Getz and Dexter Gordon—as well as bebop, cool jazz, bossa nova and Hollywood soundtracks. Beyond music, such beat writers as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac hero-worshiped Young, and Bertrand Tavernier would base his 1986 movie “’Round Midnight” on the lives of Young and pianist Bud Powell.
The premature deaths of Young and Holiday testify to jazz musicians’ hard road then: irregular incomes, often-itinerant work, ever-present temptations of substance abuse, unscrupulous club owners and record producers, and vicissitudes of public taste.
If you were an African-American musician, you also faced the psychic brutality of widespread racism, discrimination, segregation and the risk of physical violence. “It’s all bullshit,” said Young, “and they want everybody who is a Negro to be a Uncle Tom or Uncle Remus or Uncle Sam.” And yet, despite sustained assaults on his dignity and humanity, Young and other musicians of color, fortified by the strength of their character and culture, produced so much splendid, evergreen art.
—Mr. Hasse is curator emeritus of American music at the Smithsonian. His books include “Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington” (Da Capo) and “Discover Jazz” (Pearson).