Lester Young: From Woodville to Algiers to Minneapolis to Kansas City

Aug 28, 2017

Lester Young was born 108 years ago, on August 27, 1909, in Woodville, Mississippi. The state's been the birthplace of countless blues legends, but very few jazz artists, and fewer still who grew up there. (What's up with that?) Two of those few, Gerald Wilson and Teddy Edwards, got out early, as both moved on to benefit from the excellent music education curriculum in the Detroit public schools. As for Lester, Woodville wasn't much more than a dateline in his life, as Algiers, Louisiana, which sits across the river from New Orleans, became his family's primary residence until he was ten. In numerous interviews, Prez recalled hearing music in the streets of the Crescent City before the family moved on to Minneapolis.

Lester's father, Willis Handy Young, was a Tuskeegee trained musician and taskmaster who taught his young son the rudiments of trumpet, violin, drums, and saxophone, and made his living leading the Young Family Band. Family bands were a common phenomenon in carnivals a century ago, and Lester recalled, "We all traveled with the minstrel show, through Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, all through there." (Lester's younger brother Lee became a superb drummer who worked with Nat King Cole and Jazz at the Philharmonic.) Lester played drums in the family band early on, but as he famously described it, he decided to switch to saxophone when he realized the girls he laid eyes on in the audience drifted off while he was tied down packing up his kit. It was also in this setting that an early characteristic of Lester's, call it independence or defiance, was manifest when he shirked his father's requirement to learn to read music. While family bands weren't uncommon, what is unusual is the relatively late age of 27 at which Lester made his recording debut, and the prominence he'd achieved before his name appeared as a leader on records, the December 28, 1943, session by the Lester Young Quartet for Keynote Records.

A decade earlier, notwithstanding his absence from recordings, Lester's underground reputation was such that the esteemed bandleader Fletcher Henderson called him out of Kansas City to succeed Coleman Hawkins, the most famous tenor player of the day, when Hawk struck out for Europe in 1934. It was nothing less than the most coveted tenor saxophone assignment for any black player at the time, but the pressure Pres came under to emulate Hawk proved to be a drag for the highly original stylist who had "no eyes" for functioning as what he likened to a "repeater pencil." In a matter of weeks, Lester requested his discharge from Henderson and a statement clarifying that he hadn't been dismissed, and he returned to KC, where he joined Count Basie's fledgling band at the Reno Club. Lester found in Basie's supple approach to rhythm a perfectly conducive setting for his innovative sound and style, one that's beautifully displayed here on what will long stand as the most impressive debut in jazz history.