Lester Young: Prez-o'reenie
“Very little about the tenor saxophonist Lester Young was unoriginal,” wrote Whitney Balliett in one of the most memorable of his jazz musician profiles forThe New Yorker. “When he played, he held his saxophone in front of him at a forty-five degree angle, like a canoeist about to plunge his paddle into the water. He had an airy, lissome tone and an elusive, lyrical way of phrasing that had never been heard before…He spoke a coded language…’Bing and Bob’ were the police. An attractive girl was a ‘poundcake.’ A ‘gray boy’ was a white man, and Young himself, who was light-skinned, was an ‘oxford gray.’ ‘I feel a draft’ meant he sensed a bigot nearby. ‘Have another helping’ meant take another chorus…A ‘zoomer’ was a sponge and a ‘needle dancer’ was a heroin addict. A ‘tribe’ was a band, and a ‘molly trolley’ was a rehearsal. ‘Can madam burn?’ meant, Can your wife cook? ‘Startled doe, two o’clock’ meant that a pretty girl was in the right side of the audience.”
Here’s another example of Lester-speak from the bandleader Johnny Otis’s memoir, Upside Your Head! Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue:
“As I was getting off the elevator of the Pershing Hotel in Chicago, I heard Lester Young call out, ‘Hey Lady Hawk, let me see your machine-o’reenie.’ Don Robey had just bought me a new portable tape recorder as I scouted talent for his Peacock record label…and [even though it] weighed a ton in those days, I was delighted to stop by his room because to spend time with Prez was to enjoy his ‘o’reenie, o’roonie’ language and to just bask in the glow of his gentle genius.”
Otis then recounts this exchange he had with Prez about the success his orchestra was enjoying with the young singer Little Esther Phillips.
Lester: “So, the Little Esthereenie kittie was a good lick o’reenie for you, huh?”
Otis: “Yeah, the little chick was a blessing for us. She’s raising sand all over the country.”
Lester: “Y’all eatin’ regular now, dig.”
Otis: “Yeah, and payin’ the rent too, sometimes.”
Lester: “They’ll be tryin’ to cop her song, evonce. That’s the stuff you gotta watch, dig?”
And here's a Prez-o’reenie experience of my own: When I was the emcee of the Litchfield Jazz Festival, I had the pleasure of introducing the Heath Brothers, Percy, Jimmy and Tootie, on a Saturday evening in August 2005. Percy, the great bassist whose speaking voice Balliett described as “near-shouting…rounded by continual laughter,“ worked with Lester before joining the Modern Jazz Quartet in 1953. When I introduced myself to the Heaths before bringing them on, Percy asked me to pronounce my name again, whereupon he began chanting: “Tomo’reenie, Tomo’reenie, Tomo’reenie,” then chuckled and said, “Jimmy, I can hear ol’ Les Young now: ‘Tomo’reenie, Tomo’reenie’.” Following their set, Percy came off the bandstand chanting it all over again. I’ve been accustomed to people goofing on my name for years, but for Big P to imagine the fun Lester would have had with it only endears me more to one of my all-time favorites, the one and only Lester Willis Young.
Today is Lester’s 103rd birthday anniversary. The poet of the tenor saxophone was born in Woodville, Mississippi in 1909 into a musical family that barnstormed the South and Midwest throughout his youth. Young was a legendary figure in the jazz world well before he'd appeared on record, and he was called from Kansas City to succeed Coleman Hawkins, the tenor’s dominant stylist, in Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra in 1934. What may have been the most coveted tenor saxophone assignment for a black musician proved to be a bruising experience for Lester, who was hounded by his colleagues and Henderson’s wife Leora to imitate Hawk. Young, who famously promoted the notion of telling one’s “own story” and had “no eyes” for musicians who sounded like “repeater pencils,” promptly resigned, requesting only a note stating he hadn’t been fired. Leaving New York, he made his way back to the cocoon of K.C., working first with Andy Kirk, then joining Count Basie’s fledgling 9-piece outfit at the Reno Club. By the time he made his first records in 1936, he was a 27-year-old with a fully mature conception, his stunningly melodic flights carried on the wings of the Basie band's jetstream.
In its June 2012 issue, JazzTimes ran a cover story entitled “The Top 50 Tenor Sax Albums of All Time.” Three selections appeared under Lester’s name, including The Classic Columbia, Okeh, and Vocalion Lester Young with Count Basie at Number 5; Lester Young Trio at Number 12; and Lester Young with the Oscar Peterson Trio at Number 43. Of the latter, Thomas Conrad wrote, “Young was not Buddy Bolden, but it is hard to find records that support his reputation. Here, on “I Can’t Get Started,” it is clear that Young’s music came from pain, and that he transformed it into elegance—a defiant, courageous human affirmation. “
I won’t argue with Conrad’s appreciation. If anything, it’s a fairly apt description of what makes Lester’s music so personal and poetic. But there’s plenty on record to support Young’s reputation, it’s just that a good deal of it, especially his most influential work before World War II, is under other’s names, principally Basie’s and Billie Holiday’s, or the collective banner of the Kansas City Six and Seven. Young’s legacy is further obscured by the brevity of his brilliant elaborations, many of them in the form of 8 and 16 and 32-bar solos; this is "blink and you'll miss it" art. But as Ted Gioia notes in his newly-published volume, The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire, “I can’t think of another jazz improviser who was more skilled at capitalizing on such short interludes than Young at this stage of his career.” Gioia selects a total of 22 recordings by Lester as exemplary performances of the songs he considers essential, and Prez is on numerous others by Basie, Billie, and Teddy Wilson.
The Number 5 ranking on the JazzTimes list is the new Mosaic collection of re-mastered Basie titles; most of its tracks, from Lester’s 1936 debut masterpieces “Shoe Shine Boy” and “Oh, Lady Be Good,” through such originals as “Lester Leaps In,” “Taxi War Dance,” and “Tickle Toe,” are essentials. It also includes the sublime rehearsal session that combined a group of Basie-ites with Benny Goodman and Charlie Christian. Young was Christian's stylistic model, and it doesn't take more than a solo or two by the guitarist to hear Lester's influence. Listen for it here on "Lester's Dream."
The Lester Young Trio that placed Number 12 may have benefited from the renewed attention it received when Don Byron paid homage to it on Ivey-Divey, his 2004 Blue Note session with Jason Moran and Jack DeJohnette. I can't say if Prez would have had “eyes” for Lady Byron’s effort, but his 1946 Trio date with Nat Cole and Buddy Rich usually ranks second to his first session with Nat, a 1942 date that was Norman Granz's first as a producer. Granz later took pride in presenting Lester in Jazz at the Philharmonic, and he produced the saxophonist’s work throughout the last decade of his life, including Number 43, the 1952 date with the Oscar Peterson Trio. This set occasionally appears under the title The Presidents Plays, and it's one of Lester's most consistent from the period, highlighted by poignantly lyrical renditions of "Stardust," "I Can't Get Started," and "I'm Confessin'."
We’ll hear selections from all of these, and a spirited performance by Lester with John Lewis, Gene Ramey and Jo Jones at the Royal Roost in 1951, in tonight’s Jazz a la Mode.
Here's Lester in his customary porkpie hat on a 1950 soundstage production featuring Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy Rich, bassist Ray Brown, pianist Hank Jones, trombonist Bill Harris, and tenor player Flip Phillips. Dig it, and blow a chorus of your own on a favorite Prez recording or tale in the Comments window below.