I found this rarity by Lee and Lester Young on YouTube this morning and was only its 100th viewer. It’s an aircheck from a Mutual Network radio broadcast. Lee was leading the Esquires of Rhythm at the Capri in Hollywood when his older brother made his way to California in May 1941. Lester had left Count Basie the previous December and put together a small combo for an engagement at Kelly’s Stable on 52nd Street, but it came to a sudden, disappointing end, and that sent Pres and his wife Mary out west. Bumps Myers was already on Lee’s band, so with Lester it became a full-bodied, two-tenor combo à la Basie. The group didn’t make a studio session, so this performance of “Benny’s Bugle,” which finds Pres in peak form, is a valuable addition to his legacy.
“Benny’s Bugle” joins another Lester Young rarity that surfaced in 2012 at the Library of Congress. It’s most likely from a jam session at the Village Vanguard in December 1940 that was recorded and later broadcast on WNYC. The audiotape of “Blues” was featured in a report by Scott Simon, host of NPR’s Weekend Edition.
Lester’s excellent, though short-lived Kelly’s Stable combo (Shad Collins, tpt; John Collins, gtr; Clyde Hart, piano; Nick Fenton, bass; Doc West, drums) made only one studio recording when it backed the singer Una Mae Carlisle on March 10, 1941. The wartime novelty, “Blitzkrieg Baby,” which features Pres in a 16-bar solo, is the best known title from the date, but his sublime playing on “Beautiful Eyes” makes it the session highlight for me. Today is Lester Young’s 105th birthday anniversary.
Addendum: Here’s the famous footage of Lester with Billie Holiday singing “Fine and Mellow” on the television special, The Sound of Jazz. It’s alluded to in a comment below by Girish Trivedi.
Note: I’ve corrected the identification of the song “Blues” that’s played at the Village Vanguard. I’d originally written “Variations on I Got Rhythm.”