Today is President’s Day, the holiday I like to conflate with Lester Young. I doubt Prez would have made a good president, and we know from his court martial that the U.S. Army was horribly negligent when it pressed him into military service. He didn’t have “bulging eyes” for bandleading either. But when it came to the tenor saxophone, Young was one of the most courageous trailblazers jazz has ever known, withstanding hostility toward his unorthodox style before it gained acceptance in the late 30’s.
Young came to prominence with Count Basie, whom he first joined in Kansas City around 1933. Though he’d yet to record, he was fairly well-known to musicians by then and was recruited by Fletcher Henderson to succeed Coleman Hawkins in 1934. Young eagerly accepted the offer to fill what was then the most prominent tenor saxophone chair in jazz, but his relaxed phrasing and mellow tone were rejected by his Henderson colleagues and by the bandleader’s wife, who hounded him to play like Hawk. Lester beat a retreat to Kansas City only weeks after joining Henderson, spent several months with Andy Kirk, and then was back with Basie by 1935. The following year, at age 27, he made his recording debut with a Basie small group on “Shoe Shine Boy” and “Oh, Lady Be Good,” records that Charlie Parker, among others, studied obsessively.
Young spent the better part of five years with Basie and along the way appeared on a couple of dozen Teddy Wilson-Billie Holiday sides, as well as the premier of the Kansas City Six, and he was a star attraction at Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert and the following year’s Spirituals to Swing. The Basie band offered Prez a perfect launching pad for his solo flights, and provided him with a communal wall of protection against the crueler elements of Jim Crow, show biz, and the road.
But by 1941, Young still hadn’t made a record under his own name. He was also aggrieved by the sudden death of his Basie tenormate, Herschel Evans, and according to his friend Gene Ramey, he learned that John Hammond, who was one of Basie’s greatest boosters, had recommended against Lester’s request for a salary increase to $125 per week. Given that Hammond was also a huge devotee of Young, this must have seemed like a cruel betrayal. But Basie maintained it was all business, and that things had slowed for the band late in 1940. “By the beginning of December, the band wasn’t really doing too well financially. We were still working, but there were a lot of miles between gigs, so we were not really making any money.” Others contend that Basie’s far-flung bookings were punishment for his attempt to follow his agent Willard Alexander from MCA to William Morris Agency. Whichever the case, Lester’s last session with Basie was November 19, 1940.
Young put together a quintet that included his former Basie colleague Shad Collins on trumpet, Nick Fenton on bass, and Doc West on drums. The group also featured guitarist John Collins, who as one of Charlie Christian’s immediate disciples was one of the earliest players to fall into the lineage of guitarists whose single-string lines emulated Lester’s on the saxophone. Notwithstanding his renown as a saxophonist (he placed high in the Metronome and Down Beat polls in 1939), Lester scuffled for a while before landing a spot at Kelly’s Stable on 52nd Street.
In his biography of Young, Lester Leaps In, Douglas Daniels quotes Collins, who said that at Kelly’s, Lester’s playing was “all truth and beauty…that was his life…Lester would grab your heart. It wasn’t what he said, but how he said it. It wasn’t his technique as much as it was his soul.”
Of course, such soulfulness often comes with acute sensitivities. Just three weeks into the gig at Kelly’s, Lester quit the place, believing he had been slighted by a waiter. Collins recalled, “The bandstand was right by the aisle that led to the kitchen, which meant that the waiters had to come right by the bandstand all night long…Prez played a beautiful solo, and he stepped off the bandstand and one of the waiters bumped right into him.” An exchange of words ensued, and as Collins saw it, Lester’s feelings were hurt, “and so that was enough for him to quit, and he would starve before he would compromise.”
Thus a sudden end came to Young’s first foray as a bandleader, but California beckoned. Lester’s younger brother Lee was leading a small combo in Los Angeles, where their father and step-mother and most of the Young family resided. In the spring of 1941, the saxophonist moved to the West Coast.
In tonight’s Jazz a la Mode, we’ll hear selections from the sessions that Young made with Nat King Cole in Los Angeles in 1942 and ’46. Both were produced by Norman Granz, who counted Prez and Nat both as personal friends and musical favorites. Here's Prez in his signature porkpie hat on a Granz soundstage playing "Blues for Greasy."