© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Manhattan, March 19, 1959
“Nearly three hundred people assembled in front of the Universal Funeral Chapel at the corner of Fifty-second Street and Lexington Avenue, six blocks from the Alvin Hotel where Lester had lived. After the eulogy was delivered by his friend the Reverend O. D. Dempsey, Count Basie's wife read from her husband's telegram: ‘If I were going to compliment anyone, I’d certainly do it for a guy like Pres Young. As a jazzman, he was tops.’
Al Hibbler sang. Everyone there wanted to participate. A few pictures were taken — the uninvited were quickly sidelined. Billie Holiday, raw from alcohol and tears, left supported by Paul Quinichette and Budd Johnson. Elaine Swaine was taken home by Ira Gitler.
Others stayed around, hiding their pain behind a mask of dignity. The family thanked everybody, and little by little the crowd broke up. Jimmy Rushing, Jo Jones, Dizzy, Henry "Red" Allen, Tyree Glenn, Illinois Jacquet, Dickie Wells, Gene Cedric, Billy Taylor, Toni Scott, Sonny Greer, Milt Hinton, Buddy Tate, Ed Lewis, Rudi Blesh, John Hammond, Norman Granz, Leonard Feather, Alan Morrison, Gunther H., Dan Morgenstern, and others.
A small cortege of close friends was formed. It reached Evergreen Cemetery, Queens, an hour later.
From that moment on, all that remained was one man’s musical legacy and a few memories . . ."
- Luc Delannoy, Pres: The Story of Lester Young
I have always thought of the late tenor saxophonist Lester Young as somewhat of a mystical and mysterious figure.
Descriptions of his behavior and quotes attributed to him created the image of a very quixotic person, this despite the fact that the phrasing in his solos struck me as very simple and direct. How to explain this paradox?
This chimerical impression of Lester was somewhat clarified by a reading of pianist Bobby Scott’s insightful essay entitled “The House in the Heart” which appeared earlier on these pages.
And now, thanks to a friend’s generosity, a reading of Luc Delannoy’s Pres: The Story of Lester Young [translated from the French by Elena B. Odio] has served to further dispel my fanciful perceptions of Lester.
Pres: The Story of Lester Young was published in 1993 by the University of Arkansas Press.
Each of the book’s twenty-two  chapters is thematic and sequential and written in a style that is easy to read and full of information about what made Lester “tick.”
By way of example, here is Chapter Ten - The Confirmation.
“During the night of October 31, 1936, after headlining with the Duke Ellington Orchestra at the Paseo Ballroom, Count Basie and his orchestra left Kansas City with the blessing of every musician in the city With them in the bus headed for the East Coast, the musicians took their new costumes; some even had new instruments. Basie carefully cradled a small leather briefcase in his lap, in which he filed the band's repertoire: twelve arrangements!
Lester left the midwestern city with no regrets; for him another episode comparable to that of the Blue Devils was beginning, complete with road trips, small paychecks, excellent musical relations, and the emergence of solid friendships. Just hours before they were to leave, the young Gene Ramey payed him a visit and gave him a magnificent Conn tenor sax.
The band's first stop was in Chicago where Willard Alexander had negotiated an engagement at the Grand Terrace from November 6 through December 3. The Grand Terrace was more of a music-hall auditorium than a jazz club; the decor was luxurious, admission was expensive, and the rather stodgy audience that attended preferred musical reviews to concerts.
That afternoon, when the orchestra entered the room to rehearse, the musicians were taken aback on seeing dozens of dancers going over their numbers for the evening show. At a loss, Basie telephoned Willard Alexander and explained to him that he couldn't see the least purpose for bringing him in; his repertoire I was not ready, and they were demanding that his orchestra play light music; furthermore, he really didn't see how he could fit into a musical show. The best thing would be to leave town on the spot. But Willard didn't see things in the same light: the Grand Terrace performances were being transmitted on the air and it was imperative for the orchestra to appear in order for it to get exposure.
The first evening was a true disaster. Fitted into their tight new uniforms and jammed behind music stands, the musicians played without conviction, deciphering with difficulty the parts they were furnished without explanation. The audience let its displeasure be known, and the management of the Grand Terrace threatened to break the contract if there was no improvement.
The first show of sympathy came from the chorus girls who, while amused at the situation, tried to comfort the musicians. Fletcher Henderson, who had just finished a four-week engagement at the Terrace, came to the rescue by offering Basie several arrangements and themes of his own so that Basie could put together enough of a repertoire to please the public. Indirectly, he was also helping a musician whom he admired, but from whom he had been forced to part ways several years earlier: Lester Young.
After going over the material a few times, the orchestra managed to overcome its fears and to familiarize itself with the new arrangements furnished by Henderson. The act was far from perfect, but the ensemble didn't present itself badly.
One morning, after a particularly exciting night at the Terrace, John Hammond entered the cafeteria where the musicians were having lunch. Casually, he took Basie, Lester, Jo, Walter, Tatti Smith, and Jimmy Rushing to one side. He had a simple proposal to make: since he had been unable to void the contract signed by Basie with Decca before it entered into effect, he wanted to make use of the few hours left before the musicians turned in to record them in an independent studio named "Jones-Smith Incorporated." This was truly a stroke of genius on the part of John Hammond.
The place was shabby. The studio was one small room measuring 12 by 15 feet. It was much too small to set up a grand piano, and it was lacking both sound-proofing and the acoustical panels you find in studios today. I had one engineer. There were two microphones, but I chose to use just one. The acoustics were so poor that a blow to the bass drum together with vibrations from the double bass sometimes flattened the needle on the record tracks. (John Hammond)
So Jo Jones used nothing but a snare drum and a hi-hat.
The situation was entirely new to Lester, Jo, and Smith; here they were about to record for the first time, when only that morning at eight o'clock they had been sipping coffee, recording being the last thing on their minds: "Basie's face was full of energy and conveyed his enthusiasm. . . . Walter maintained his self-assurance, Jimmy too. . . . Tatti was quiet but active; Lester was thrilled, Jo was generous and bossy" (John Hammond).
In three hours (from 10:00 A.M. to 1:00 P.M.), the group recorded "Shoe Shine Boy," "Evenin'," "Boogie Woogie," and "Lady Be Good," a classic written by George Gershwin in 1924.
The discographies of Count Basie and Lester Young give October 9, 1936, as the date of this recording session, but it was really November 9, for the engagement at the Grand Terrace had begun on November 6. Hammond, Young, and Jones also confirmed that the recording took place then. At the end of September and beginning of October, Young was in California and Basie was in Kansas City, making preparations for the upcoming tour. But two contradictory pieces of information do remain: Lewis Porter claims the Chicago Defender referred in its news columns to a visit made by Basie to Chicago in September of 1936, and a few years later, Jo Jones "thought" he remembered that the session had taken place on his birthday, i.e., on October 8, 1936.
At that time, there were several Hawkins records on the market, and practically all the saxophonists knew the solo parts by heart. When Lester's recording went into circulation two months later, everyone — except those in his entourage — expected to see more of the musical standards set by "Bean."
The recording contains two major pieces: a highly original version of Gershwin's "Lady Be Good" done in the key of D, and the famous "Shoe Shine Boy," where Lester's chorus is considered by many to be one of the best of his career and one which highlights Lester's originality: First, there are the liberties he takes with the standard four-beat measure. He never ceases to accentuate it at his discretion, sometimes placing the stress slightly ahead of or behind the beat. Then there is the rhythmic accompaniment generated by his very style. The rhythm section guarantees a kind of steady, supple, and continuous breathing effect, with neither interruptions nor special effects. Then he lays out his own rhythmic and melodic ideas on the soft carpeting that has been rolled out for him.
Later, when the full Basie orchestra made recordings, it became more apparent how Lester's style and the aerial effects it created were cradled by Jo Jones' technique. Jones' use of cymbals to mark the beat (instead of the bass drum as before) created a lightness that had not existed until then in the rhythm section, and which was itself driven by the style of Lester Young. One could speak in this regard of a veritable "Lester Young Effect," and its impact was immediate.
Lester had broken once and for all with the powerful, turbulent "tidal wave" phrases of Coleman Hawkins. Here, in fact, was a musician more inclined toward simplicity and the restructuring of melody than toward the quest for complex harmonies. This was someone who played more readily by scale than by chord; someone who didn't systematically base his improvisations on harmony, but on fresh interpretations of a single melody. And so in the process of reusing old material, Lester never ceased revisiting both his immediate, and distant, musical past, where Hawkins, by contrast, refused to look back.
Let us also point out that, contrary to the popular opinion of the time — which only took notice of Hawkins' panting vibrato — Lester used nothing but an authentic vibrato. It is a discreet vibrato, to be sure, but it is no less there, affecting the height and the rhythm of the notes, especially when these are repeated (and such repetition is a Young characteristic).
As Andre Hodeir has reminded us, "all the great jazz improvisers have created a sound out of their phrases, and their phrases out of their sound." And that is exactly what is surprising in Lester's case: this sweet, soft, relaxed sound, a sound that is beautiful and pure, that conveys a preoccupation that is spiritual to start with, one that is no longer strictly physical.
At last, to take up a well-known cliche, Lester was a melodic improviser who worked on a "horizontal" plane, whereas Hawkins was the prototypical "vertical" improvisor, who relied on the harmonies of a piece. Admittedly, it was not the progression of chords that was of principal interest to Lester; he limited himself to tonics, to dominant chords and to their extensions, showing a clear preference for melodic development. Hawkins, by contrast, organized a whole progression that deviated from the chords, including "passing chords," and a few extensions.
No sooner did this record appear on the Vocalion-Brunswick label than a passionate debate began to rage. Charlie Parker and Charlie Christian were the first ones to buy and decipher it in Kansas City. Gene Ramey remembers having heard Parker around the Kansas City nightclubs: "He would get up and play the Prez solos note for note; his alto sounded like the Prez' Bird was so influenced by Young. . . .”
And when Bird left to go on tour with Georgie Lee, during the summer of 1937, the first things he packed to take with him were Lester's recordings.
But if you don't count Bird and Charlie Christian, Hammond, the Basie musicians, and a few friends, Lester's music received negative ratings in most jazz circles. This didn't prevent Lester from being perfectly sure of his originality; nor did he have any qualms about advertising it.
I had never heard Hawk, other than on a few records. Everybody copied him. The jazz world was under Hawk’s spell. But me, I couldn't imagine myself copying Hawk, or anybody else. You had to have a style that was truly your own. You can't be a stylist if all you do is concentrate on not copying someone . . . , because I meant to be original. Originality, that's the trick. You may well possess tone, technique, and a bunch of other things, but if you have no originality, you don't really go anywhere. You have to be original. (Lester Young)
And forty-eight years later, Miles Davis, who was the first to realize a synthesis of the Young and Parker styles, also took Lester's lessons to heart. In an interview granted to Francis Marmande for Le Monde, he reminded us of what matters most in jazz, which also happens to be what it currently lacks most:
The underlying task, the core of the task, is sound. Sound, you understand. Sound is your very own voice; you have to seek it out . . . , sound is in charge of your person. . . . You are the sound. You are your own sound. There is very little sound, original sound, in creative music. Plenty of perfectionism, to be sure, lots of repetition, but very little sound.
But even though that November session may have confirmed each musician in his manner of playing, it certainly did not eradicate the problems that the Basie orchestra was having. The assistance of Fletcher Henderson had been invaluable, but the musicians still needed several days to regain their self-confidence. The time remaining in the engagement was spent getting to know one another and resolving some technical problems in musical placement. In fact, thanks to these explosive moments, the bonds of friendship within the orchestra grew tighter. When Lester was not jamming all night in a Chicago nightclub with Jo Jones and their new friend, Roy Eldridge, he was either in the company of Buck Clayton or that of Herschel Evans, whose personality he grew to appreciate more and more.
The Young-Evans relationship is often presented in terms of a deep rivalry, a real enmity, according to some. Yet this notion is false; the only source of discord among them was their concept of the instrument. Evans was a follower of Hawkins, as was Chu Berry. It is apparent that there was a certain distrust when they first began to play in the Basie orchestra, a certain mutual suspicion, concerning the role each was to assume.
The stroke of genius on Basie's part consisted of having matched these two opposite musical personalities, who were constantly trying to surpass each other for recognition. They both had their fits of pride and their tantrums, but by living and working together, Evans and Young learned how to understand each other better, how to appreciate each other, and finally how to be good friends.
A quarrel between Herschel and Lester? It was more like a quarrel between two brothers. I was always a kind of messenger between them. ... I was always trying to get them together in a cafe or a restaurant. ... In a way, most of the time they were like twins. (Jo Jones).
Lester's decision to hold the saxophone at a forty-five-degree angle must be attributed to the outbursts of pride he experienced so often in his youth. "Since Mr. Evans absolutely wants to play in that manner — read: loudly a la Hawkins — since he wants to be noticed and to capture the attention of the public, I am going to hold my instrument so that it is the first thing people see when they look at the orchestra." Footnoting this image probably ought to be the fact that Lester was afraid of not being heard. By slanting his saxophone in that way and by projecting it forward, he believed that the sound was not smothered by the orchestra and reached the audience more freely.
This awkward pose, this impression of levitation on Lester's part, though in no way delivering a better sound from his instrument, did enable him to attract attention. Better yet, as we shall see, his pose was to engender a curious epidemic. . . . The regional press was the first to notice it at the time:
“If you have seen the famous Basie orchestra, the musician who most certainly stood out first before your eyes was Lester Young. He sits a little slumped over, in a strange position at the end of the saxophone section, and seems completely absorbed in his part. When he advances for a solo, you begin to notice something unusual about this fabulous gentleman with the round face. He holds his sax crosswise, nearly horizontally, and plays in the direction of the ceiling.”
Such was the way in which Lester was first depicted. The "fractured" neck, the sax borne in quasi-mystical ecstasy (an albatross, they called it), the search for recognition of his completely rethought style of music. And it was original.
The following video montage features Lester in a setting that was rarely heard - Lester playing the clarinet.