His musical life

Lester Youngs personal musical style

Unlike many other jazz musicians born before 1920 like Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Johnny Hodges, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson and Stuff Smith, Lester Young’s way of playing never was the same. His style changed radically throughout his entire carreer.

His early influences was Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke and two white saxophone players, Jimmy Dorsey and Frankie Trumbauer. From Dorsey he adopted some effects like use of deep honks and alternative fingerings which he developed further, and from the three others Young learned a strong sense of musical form and a way of telling a musical story. All these traits were found in his earliest recordings. Furthermore, Young played almost even eighths which gave his improvisations a lightness which stood in big contrast to the much staccato phrases played by his contemporaries like Coleman Hawkins. Futhermore Young’s way of improvising was unique. He placed rests on the most unexpected places and played phrases of various lenghts that crossed the natural 4-bar or 8-bar lines. He also developed a way of motivic improvisation where the next phrase was built upon its predecessor. This way, he told a continuing story that made it easy for people to follow his ideas. 

[Back in Your Own Backyard, January 12, 1938]

Pianist John Lewis, who was a member of Lester Young’s quartet in 1951, remembers that Young took this way of improvising to an extreme extent. If Young had played Sometimes I’m Happy on a Tuesday night, he would play a variation of that particular solo on Sometimes I’m Happy the following Tuesday, and then he would play a variation of the variations the following week, so that his playing formed a kind of gigantic organic whole.

In the early forties, Young’s sound changed drastically. With a new mouthpiece and plastic reeds he got a more dark sound, but his playing also changed. The freshness and youthfulness had to give way to a more lazy and relaxed attitude with a heavy laid-back, and his use of blue notes got heavier.

[After Theatre Jump, March 22, 1944]

This changed after the war. The dark sound was still there, but the young players in his own bands inspired him to get on his toes, and recordings from 1948 and 1949 reveal that Young had also listened to the bebop players.

[Just You, Just Me, March 19, 1949]

His playing also grew in depth duriong these years and got more emotional, and he came to rely more heavily on a small repertory of formulas that today are the common property of almost every jazz musician, thus ending up in countless solos and jazz compositions. Especially his ballad playing became emotional. On the surface they seem to consist of simple phrases, but when listening closely to them you discover innumerable small rhythmic variations and subtle harmonic devices such as an ability to find an unexpected way of placing chromatic phrases. Another trait which also was an inspiration for many other saxophone players, was his use of the augmented fifth. The fifth in C major, is a G, so the augmented fifth will here be a G sharp.

[Polka Dots and Moonbeams, July 7, 1957]

You can’t overestimate Young’s importance on the development of modern jazz. His superb melodic gift and logical phrasing and smooth, flowing lines were the inspiration for almost every young jazz musician regardless of instrument born after 1920. Even today, especially his recordings of the fifties made with young musicians in the rhythm section, seem timeless and can be enjoyed to a great extent. The musical language that Young developed, and which has later been part of so many jazz musicians vocabulary developed during the sixties into the socalled mainstream jazz style, has been popular ever since. Young will never be out of date