A Beginner’s Guide to the Master Takes

1936 Small Group with Basie AKA “Jones-Smith.” Four sides including “Lady Be Good” and “Shoe Shine Boy.” One of the Rosetta Stones of all jazz since.

1936-40 Big bands and small groups with Basie on various labels. All the books address this music.  Of course, even the pieces that don’t feature Young are often wonderful.

1938-40 Sessions led by Teddy Wilson and Billie Holiday, all with Holiday vocals.  Arguably the greatest music on this list; some of the greatest music ever made; music that can be appreciated by any reasonably sensitive human regardless of their point of view. Holiday’s chiaroscuro is a strong argument for why jazz players play Tin Pan Alley. It’s not a feeling you get anywhere else: neither a blues nor a musical, but some mysterious intersection of the two.

1938 The Kansas City Six. Eddie Durham’s mellow four-song masterpiece. Some of Young’s finest clarinet work, and the surprising feature for Walter Page, “Pagin’ the Devil.”

1939 Benny Goodman rehearsal date with Charlie Christian. A brooding, intimate session, unreleased until the 1970s. Loren Schoenberg: “The entire band seems to be thinking the music more than playing it.  There is no effort, just the eternal current of time emanating from the Walter Page-led rhythm section and carrying the horns along with it. An abundance of phrases unique to this session emerge from Young’s horn shedding new light on his early style, which became the basis for entire movements within the jazz world.”

All of the above is a “must-have” for anyone serious about Lester Young.

Most of the Forties sessions consist of four pieces. Many of the musicians involved are excellent and Young is always refreshing and soulful. These tracks also documents the transition from swing to bebop in an obvious way.

1942 trio with Nat King Cole and Red Callender. Unusually long songs with brilliant interplay. The first session of Young as a leader expands on his work with Billie Holiday: he would exquisitely paraphrase the melodies of standards until his death.Interesting to compare this stark “Body and Soul” with Hawkins’s more famous version. A must-have.

1943 Dickie Wells-led septet with Bill Coleman, Ellis Larkins, and Jo Jones. Everybody sounds great here, especially Young on “Linger Awhile.”

1943 quartet with Johnny Guarnieri, Slam Stewart, and Sid Catlett. A seriously swinging date. Sonny Rollins selected “Afternoon of a Basieite” as a desert island disc. I first learned “Just You, Just Me” from a fakebook that used this version of Young’s first-chorus paraphrase of the melody.  (I didn’t realize this until years later, and was disappointed by the original melody of “Just You, Just Me” when I found it.) A must-have.

1944 Kansas City Seven with Buck Clayton, Dickie Wells, Basie, and Jo Jones. Lewis Porter is right to include a transcription and analysis of “After Theatre Jump” in his book: it is a brilliant solo. Freddie Green is unusually prominent in the mix, and Rodney Richardson replaces Walter Page with assurance. Basie is almost too strong and “leaderly”: Young requests him to back off several times, especially during the blues “Lester Leaps Again.” I wonder just how much tension existed between Basie and Young.  Basie and Albert Murray’s Good Morning Blues has far too little on Basie’s greatest sideman.

1944 Kansas City Six with Bill Coleman, Wells, Jones, and Joe Bushkin in for Basie. A very good session.

1944 Johnny Guarnieri-led septet with Billy Butterfield and Cozy Cole. A great session for Lester. On both this and the previous date the style is very much “à la Basie.”

1944 quintet with Basie and new blood Shadow Wilson. The comping of both Freddie Green and Basie on “Ghost of a Chance” is divine. In general, no one comped better for Pres than Basie, and this date is the last chance to hear them together in an intimate session. I think the minor-major “Blue Lester” is the last Young composition that isn’t a blues or rhythm changes. A must-have.

1944 “Jammin’ the Blues” session. Don’t miss the material that didn’t make it into the movie, especially Young’s glorious first chorus on “If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight” and Sid Catlett’s drumming on “Sweet Georgia Brown.” A must-have.

1945 quintet with Vic Dickenson and Dodo Marmarosa. Young’s first session after his horrible army experience. For a long time critics insisted that Young was washed-up starting here. They insisted it to his face and in print: the first DownBeat review of this session said this date is “lacking in real excitement and brilliance” and Metronome wrote, “ragged ends and no coordination.”No wonder he kept drinking.

It is now mostly understood that there is no difference in the quality of the horn playing on this session versus his pre-army work. “These Foolish Things” is one of the very greatest achievements of all music. Marmarosa’s comping on “D.B.  Blues” foreshadows Wynton Kelly’s comping on “Freddie Freeloader.” I’ve never heard of drummer Henry Tucker before but he’s cookin’ along. A must-have.

1946 trio with Nat King Cole and Buddy Rich. This is some of the most familiar Young.  However, if you only know this and not the trio with Cole and Callender, make sure you go back: for some reason I much prefer Cole on the earlier date, and frankly I think it has greater Young as well. Quibbles aside, this is still a must-have because of the way Young plays “The Man I Love” and “Peg O’ My Heart.” Buddy Rich sounds very fine; allegations that he ruins this date (or other early sessions with otherwise black musicians) are ludicrous.

1946 quintet with Joe Albany and Chico Hamilton. Albany’s dark and dry intro to a languid “She’s Funny That Way” is marvelous. “You’re Driving Me Crazy” also has primo Lester. A must-have.

1946 sextet with Shorty McConnell and Argonne Thornton. The first and best of three sessions with a fairly steady line-up. Terrible sound, but great tunes, especially “Sunday,” “S.M.  Blues,” and a very slow and sexy “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” Apparently Bud Powell sent in “Dense” Thornton (the future Sadik Hakim) as a sub. Dense is no Powell: his bebop lines have only about 65% of the right notes. Actually, Marmarosa, Albany, Thornton, and Gene DiNovi all sound that way when playing uptempo with Pres:  the language is still very raw in 1946-48. A later session with almost the same band has a great statement of “I’m Confessin’” by Young.

1948 quintet with Gene DiNovi and Curly Russell. This session has been criticized, and apparently Young himself didn’t like the band (the musicians were selected by Leonard Feather). However the tunes are great: “Tea for Two,” “East of the Sun,” “The Sheik of Araby,” and “Something to Remember You By.” Both “Tea” and “East of the Sun” end with wild blasts of the lowest note on the tenor saxophone.

1949 sextet with Jessie Drakes, Junior Mance, and Roy Haynes. This Savoy recording has better sound than the previous bunch of Aladdins. In particular, Haynes can be heard much more than on an earlier session with McConnell and Dense Thornton. He pushes the beat quite a bit, almost rushing, but is really swinging nonetheless. (There are many great live recordings of Young and Haynes together as well.) As on all these 40’s sessions, there are miraculous saxophone phrases somewhere on each song. A must-have.

The in-studio Fifties music was recorded for Norman Granz’s new label Verve (Granz was involved with Aladdin as well).  The best stuff is terrific, especially the ballads like a heartbreaking “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.” It’s fair to say that overall the studio dates from the Forties have more consistently profound tenor playing. The Verve box set, while expensive, is worth acquiring just for the legendary interviews alone.

Real Presophiles know the alternate takes and live material too. Indeed, the best Young from the Forties and Fifties is almost certainly contained in live recordings.

Young’s longest recorded solo is “Lester’s European Blues” from 1953. It could be bracketed with John Coltrane’s iconic long blues “Chasin’ the Trane,” as both performances focus on the major seventh.

It seems like Young is inside drummer Lex Humphries’s secure, driving beat. This may be rude to say, but the way Pres bobs and weaves here suggests that he’s had just the right amount to taste. I can almost see him standing there, a bit drunk, enjoying the music and the beat, breathing those mysterious phrases into the horn. At other times in the Fifties he seems too bombed, and I suppose there were other times when he didn’t have enough.  But this boat is floating just right.

“Lester’s European Blues” is on Pres in Europe, a compilation of two sessions recently reissued by High Note. Dan Morgenstern’s soulful liner notes complement this soulful music perfectly, and are also collected in The Lester Young Reader.

Heroes deserve a valediction. Two years before he died, Lester Young got one.

In 1957, the Count Basie big band took the stage at the Newport Jazz Festival. By this time, Basie’s ensemble was a well-oiled machine playing fairly elaborate charts by Ernie Wilkins and others. This 1957 style was only distantly related to the casual presentation of the 1930’s when Lester Young and Jo Jones helped propel Basie to stardom.

However, Basie always let Young sit in whenever he wanted, and halfway through the set both Young and Jo Jones got up and took their rightful place alongside the younger members of the swing machine. I love how Jones immediately slows Basie’s tempo down on “I May Be Wrong.” It’s as if Jones is saying, “Hey, Count! This is how we do it, remember? I’m not Sonny Payne, asshole.”

Thanks to Stanley Crouch for hipping me to this record. I’d never heard of it before. Surprisingly, it’s not really discussed in any of the books. My advice is merely: listen to it. You want to know what jazz is? This is fucking jazz.

Thanks also to Loren Schoenberg for pointing out to me that Young acts as co-leader on all the ensemble blues, setting riffs just as he did with Basie twenty years before. Particularly remarkable is the counterpoint behind Jimmy Rushing shouting “I May Be Wrong”; on this one Young is a section unto himself. I get a visceral response when listening to the tracks with Young and Jones on this disc: my eyes start to water, my spine contracts, and I don’t know whether to curse or pray.

The highlight of the album is the ballad feature for the President, “Polkadots and Moonbeams.” My god, if you aren’t moved by this you have a heart of stone. Young interfaces with the complicated big band chart behind him beautifully. Young’s secure aria over the opulence makes one regret that he never made an album with strings like he wanted to.

In 1957, the tough young turk tenor players with Basie were Frank Foster and Frank Wess. Despite their youth, they have a marvelous command of the idiom. Still, compare Wess and Foster on “Swinging at Newport” with Young on “Sent for You Yesterday.” Foster and Wess sound like their time and place. Lester Young doesn’t. He sounds like the past and the future.

[Go on to Further Reading.]