His personal life

Lester Youngs Life

Lester Young was unique, just as original and fascinating a musician as he was a human being. He introduced a new way of playing which led to the modern jazz. He was the inspiration for Charlie Parker and countless musicians on all instruments who grew up becoming jazz musicians during the fourties and fifties. The cool jazz of the 1950’s was directly based on Young’s light and relaxed style. 

Now, more than 50 years after his death, Young is still an inspiration for many - as the so called mainstream jazz, which never seems to go out of fashion, basically comes from his influence on musicians like Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Miles Davis, John Lewis, Charlie Christian and others of that generation.

Lester Youngs Early Years

Lester Young’s parents lived in Algiers, New Orleans, but when his mother should give birth to Lester, she moved to her parents in the little town Woodville in the South-West corner of Mississippi where Lester Willis Young was born august 27, 1909.

Back in Algiers, Lester grew up in very musical surroundings. Both his father, Willis Handy Young – called Billy - and his mother Lizetta played several instruments, and all three children, Lester, Irma (born 1912), and Lee (born 1917) were taught to play, too. Lester started on violin and trumpet, but eventually chose the drums at around the age of 10. At this time – in 1919 – Billy and Lizetta separated. Billy got custody over the children, organized a band with other members of the family and went on tour with a circus. During the following eight years, the Young family band toured with circuses and carniwal shows from Pensacola, FL to Seattle, WA during the summer seasons (April to November), to Minneapolis, MN in the winter seasons.

At around the age of 12, Lester changed instrument from drums to alto saxophone, leaving the drums to Lee. Irma also took up the alto saxophone and became quite proficient on the instrument. It was during these years that Lester learned the way of speaking that he later became famous for. On the carnival tours on the TOBA circuit members of the circuses and orchestras developed a jargon that only they could immediately understand. Lee and Lester quickly learned this unique jargon, and Lester’s creativity enabled him to develop it further. Later on, he was in the habit af addressing other musicians with "Lady" before their names, so Buddy Tate was addressed “Lady Tate”. The term "cool" was also his invention and he was a master in creating nicknames that struck. He named Harry Edison “Sweets”, Billie Holiday “Lady Day”, and Jimmy Rushing “Mr Five By Five”, just to mention a few. The B-part of a standard tune with the form A-A-B-A is sometimes called the bridge, but Lester called it “George Washington” after the bridge over the Hudson River in New York. Also some of his favorite songs were renamed, among others Just You, Just Me which in his mouth became Justus, Please, while Three Little Words was called Three Little Turds. His habit of wearing a porkpie hat and a long, black coat which in the fifties became his mark, was not a unique invention but something he found in the Southern states in the thirties.

Lester Young On his own feet

In January 1928, the Young family band went on tour, but Lester left in Salinas, KS where he joined Art Bronson’s Bostonians. After a year, he rejoined the family band but left gain during the winter 1929 when he moved back to Minneapolis to play with Eddie Barefield. During the following four years he was on the move, playing in various settings with Walter Page’s Blue Devils in Oklahoma City, touring with Art Bronson again in the Mid-West, and playing in Minneapolis with Eddie Barefield, and the orchestras of Eugene Schuck, Frank Hines and Paul Cepha. From early 1932 to early 1933 he was again part of the Original Blue Devils, after which Lester joined King Oliver’s band for half a year. In November 1933 he left Oliver in Kansas City to play shortly with Clarence Love, the Bennie Moten-George E. Lee Band, and Count Basie. 

Lester was always playing during these years. During his spare time he always seeked out jam sessions, and in December 1933 he took part in one at the Cherry Blossom, where he met Coleman Hawkins – the most famous tenor saxophonist at the time and father of the tenor saxophone in jazz – who came to town with the Fletcher Henderson band. Together with other Kansas City tenor saxophonists like Ben Webster, Herschel Evans, Dick Wilson and Herman Walder they jammed until noon the next day, and the history tells us that Lester came out on top, playing more creatively than Hawkins.

About three months later, Hawkins left the Henderson band to go to Europe, and Lester got an offer to join the Henderson congregation in New York in late March 1934. He left the Basie band in Little Rock, AR and went to New York where he stayed with the Henderson family until the band went on a two-months tour. Back in New York again in June they played the Apollo Theater, the only job for the following month, so Lester had much time to check out the musical pulse of the city. Here- at a jam session, he met Billie Holiday and they became close friends from the start. So much that she invited him to move in with her and her mother instead of staying with the Hendersons as earlier.

Henderson’s musicians were used to the big tenor sound of Coleman Hawkins, but Lester’s sound was lighter and thinner. And even though they recognized his enormous talent, they were not happy with his sound. They thought that the saxophone section lacked a proper bottom, because his tenor sounded almost like an alto. So in the end, Henderson had to let him go, and take in Ben Webster instead.

Around July 15, 1934 Lester moved back to Kansas City to join Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy, while Webster left that band to join Henderson. But also Kirk’s band thought that Lester’s sound didn’t fit in the saxophone section, so after just two months Lester had to leave and moved back to Minneapolis to play with Rook Ganz and Boyd Atkins. Lester, however, missed the wide supply of jazz in Kansas City, so when he heard Count Basie’s band broadcasting from the Reno Club - and thought that the tenor saxophone player, Slim Freeman, wasn’t up to the band’s standard - he sent a telegram to Count Basie and offered himself. Basie knew him and accepted the offer. So in February 1936 Lester once more moved to Kansas City.

Lester Young With Count Basie

With Basie’s band, Lester fittet in immediately. In fact - it was like coming home. The band played at the Reno Club until november, and from 10 pieces it was slowly  enlarged to a big band with 14 musicians. Lester took a short leave in October to play with Louie Metcalf and Billie Holiday in New York before he returned to Kansas City shortly before the Basie band went out of town.

First stop on the East-bound tour was Grand Terrace in Chicago and it was during this engagement that Lester recorded for the first time. It was in a small setting with trumpeter Carl “Tatti” Smith, Count Basie, Walter Page, Jo Jones and singer Jimmy Rushing and when the recordings came out, they created a sensasion. Especially Lady Be Good is now is a classic. There is a freshness and timelessness about the music that makes it just as exciting to listen to today, as the day the songs were recorded. This is not only due to the smooth rhyhm section, but also to Lester’s playing. Here he reveals himself as a full-blown, mature musician, devoid of any signs of nervousness or reserve. Lester’s playing divided both colleagues and critics, but the younger generation of musicians took to Lester’s light approach and flowing melodic lines.

The Basie band reached New York at Christmas time and recorded for the first time in January 1937. A few days later, Lester also recorded with Billie Holiday in a small group. During the following four years they recorded several classic performances where it was obvious that they shared a rare musical relationship. Lester could - in his introductions - create a mood that perfectly would fit Holiday’s vocal.

Lester Youngs first experiences as a leader and the Army induction

Lester stayed with Basie until late 1940. The reason why he left is not yet clear, but one of the reasons was that he was tired of playing in a big band setting and not getting enough solo space, and therefore the obvious solution was to front his own combo. This dream came through in January, and he played Kelly’s Stable in New York in February-March 1941 with a quintet that included the fine piano player Clyde Hart. Due to controversies with the club owner, Lester and his band left half-way through the engagement, after which Lester moved to Los Angeles to play with his brother Lee’s band. He stayed on the West-Coast the next couple of years, playing long residences at the Trouville Club or Club Capri. The band went to New York for a long stay at the Café Society, Downtown from September 1942, but in February 1943 his father died in Los Angeles. This meant, that the band returned to the West-Coast, while Lester returned to New York after the funeral. Here he was recruited by Al Sears to play in his big band, which after a monthlong stay at the Renaissance Casino, toured military bases all over the United States for USO until October 1943 when Sears broke up the band.

During the early forties the jazz evolved rapidly. At the small clubs on New York’s 52nd Street and other clubs up in Harlem such as Minton’s Playhouse, young musicians like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk experimented with more complicated rhythms, harmonies and melodic structures. This turned into a new style, called bebop. Lester’s recorded solos with Basie was one of the inspirations for these musicians, so it came naturally that Gillespie hired Lester for an engagement at the Onyx Club in New York with his quintet from mid-October 1943. Lester played here until December, when he was offered a job with Basie again, which he accepted.

Basie was happy to have Lester back, and so was Lester. The band played a couple of long residencies at the Lincoln Hotel in New York between tours, but in September 1944 Lester was caught up by Uncle Sam. Basie’s band was playing in Los Angeles, and during that stay the band members Lester, Jo Jones and Harry Edison made their film debuts in Gjon Mili’s masterpiece Jammin’ the Blues. During the shooting of the film, both Lester and Jo Jones was asked to report to the army immediately, and toward the end of September they went to the draft board building.

Lester was an individual and wanted to do everything in his own tempo and could not stand to be pushed around. He was also at the time a heavy drinker and during the medical examination it was revealed that he had contracted syphilis and also occasionally suffered from epileptic fits. Even though he was unfit for military service, he nevertheless was inducted and what was worse, he was refused to play in a military band. In February 1945, he was court martialed for possessing drugs like barbiturates and marihuana and was sentenced to the United States Military Barracks in Fort Gordon, Georgia for a period of one year with hard labor and dishounorable discharge. Luckily, Lester was released on December 15, 1945, a couple of months earlier than expected.

Lester Young with his own groups and the last years

Lester went straight back to Los Angeles where he recorded in various settings, among others, These Foolish Things which became another classic. Contrary to what has been believed, Lester’s playing had not suffered from his military experiences. He was at the height of his creativity the following years, playing with self confidence, recording many other masterpieces, but also, sometimes during the last five years of his life, produced less creative music due to his increasing alcoholism. 

In Los Angeles, Lester was also hired by the young concert- and record-producer Norman Granz for a concert in January 1946 with Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic. Here he was reunited with Al Killian from the Basie-days, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and others, including his brother Lee. The concert was a success, and a couple of months later Granz hired Lester again. This time for a cross-country tour with the JATP together with Buck Clayton and Coleman Hawkins in the frontline.

After the tour, Lester got his own group again, and right up to the end of 1955 he fronted permanent groups that included a mix of swing and young bebop musicians, like Roy Haynes, Rodney Richardson, Junior Mance, Kenny Drew, Jesse Drakes, Jo Jones, Ted Kelly, Joe Shulman, Dick Hyman, John Lewis, Gene Ramey, Earl Knight, Wynton Kelly, Gil Coggins, Horace Silver, Gildo Mahones, and Connie Kay. From 1956 he didn’t front a regular group, but had to rely on musicians that were available, because he didn’t have an agent from that time on.

He continued working with Norman Granz, who featured him in the annual nation-wide JATP tours during the autums of 1949-1953, 1955 and 1957 and took part in the European JATP tours in the spring of 1952 and 1953. He recorded every year for Granz’s Verve label as well, and also took part in other tours, such as the Birdland tour to Europe in November 1956. 

Lester’s health gradually aggravated, and he was hospitalized in late 1955 and again in early 1958. In early December 1957 he took part in the legendary TV-show The Sound of Jazz where he for the last time was reunited with Billie Holiday. His one-chorus solo in the blues Fine and Mellow is the most moving music in the one-hour show, maybe the most moving ever catched on television.

Lester’s last engagement was in early 1959 when he was invited to play at the Blue Note jazz club in Paris. Due to illness he was forced to cut short the engagement, and he flew back to New York, where he died the following day, March 15.