Calling the Masters


I know Tootie Heath, but had to cold call his brother Jimmy and Benny Golson. I also spoke briefly with Frank Wess, who said he met Lester Young in 1937 when he was 15, when the Basie band came through Washington D.C. He confirmed that as a person, Young was as unique then as he was later. Wess also saw “Jammin’ the Blues” in the 40s.


I was about 19 or 20 when Lester came to Philadelphia a few times a year.  We were the house band at the Showboat: me, Jimmy Bond on bass, and Jimmy Golden on piano.  We backed Sonny Stitt, too, and Bond and I played for Thelonious Monk as well.  Jimmy Bond also got me my first record date, with Nina Simone.

Lester was a piece of work.  I loved being around this guy because he was just so different.  He seemed like he was gay, since he swished when he walked, but he wasn’t.  He was just unique.  I was so young then and just enraptured by this cat.  We all loved him.  I couldn’t wait for him to come to town.

OK, you talked to Benny Golson?  Well, Benny’s an angel, who never swears or curses.  But if you’re talking about Lester, you’ve got to talk nasty, because he swore all the time.  He called everybody “bitch.” Or “Pres.” It was “Pres” or “bitch” for everybody.

My father played clarinet on weekends.  He liked John Philip Sousa.  During the week he was an auto mechanic, but he played clarinet on weekends.  Then he’d take the clarinet into the pawn shop on Monday, and the guy gave him 4 dollars for it until he pawned it the next weekend.

Anyway, my Dad came to the club to see me play with Lester Young.  When the gig was over, we came out through the middle of the bar (that’s how the stage was set up).  I proudly said, “Lester, this is my father.”

My dad said, “How do you like playing with my son?”

Lester replied, “Well, Pres, the bitch vonces just right for me!”

My dad grumbled afterwards, “I never liked that old man anyway.”

So, Philadelphia was dry on Sunday, right?  So that’s why there were matinees on the first day, Monday, and the last day, Saturday, but no gig Sunday.  Every night we’d play 9 to 1, but on Monday and Saturday we’d play 4 to 7 as well.  And between the matinee and night sets, I’d join Lester at a little bar around the corner that was cheaper then the club.  He’d order a small gin, then sweet port in a tall glass, and chased those with a Rolling Rock.  Then, of course, he’d smoke a couple of joints.  He called weed “Edis,” after “Con Edison,” meaning power.

Smoking weed was illegal in Philadelphia, and everybody knew Lester smoked, of course.  In Philly they didn’t understand this guy.  One time we were in the back room of the club and a black narcotics detective team came in.  “Rez and Rags” were well known: “Rez” was light-skinned and “Rags” dressed in old clothes.  They tried to put the heavy on Lester: “We know you have some weed, Pres.” But he held up his drink and replied, “Lester’s ginin’ it tonight!” They grumbled but left us alone.

But most of the time he was so high he’d be moving in slow motion.  We were all so fucking high.  One time he whispered to me on the stand, “You play and I’ll take the bridgework” – meaning the bridge – “And then we’ll play “Lester Creeps” – meaning, we’re so fucking high right now that we’d better just creep into “Lester Leaps In.”

I loved him so much man.

There was a local tenor player named Jimmy Oliver who was black!  Blacker than you can believe.  Black as night and only five feet tall.  We called him the Satin Doll.  Oliver loved Lester and imitated him; played all his licks.

One night he came in and asked Lester, “You mind if I sit in?” Lester responded, “Well, Pres, I don’t like to rumble.  You play your little songs, then I’ll play my little songs.  That way you don’t throw Lester down.”

Afterwards he walked Oliver over – took him by the hands – to the Jewish owner, Herb Geller, and said, “Look at the bitch’s palms: there is nothing blacker!”

He was so different.

He never told anybody in the band what to play.  He’d never count anything off, either.  He’d sing the tempo a little bit until one of started playing.  When he said, “We are going to play ‘Polka Chips, Pres,’” that meant it was going to be “Polkadots and Moonbeams.”

He sure had a way with words.  Roy Haynes sat in with Lester, and fired him up so much that Lester just loved it.  Afterwards he came up to Roy and said, “The slave is yours if you’ve got eyes.”


Did you learn any solos of Lester Young when you were coming up? 

(Benny Golson:) Yes.  “D.B.  Blues” I learned note for note.  I was 17.  “These Foolish Things” and “Lester Leaps Again” also.  I learned “Polkadots and Moonbeams” – not note for note, but I played it because he did.  He was the first tenor saxophonist who played without the wide vibrato – they thought he was crazy!

Did you see the short “Jammin’ the Blues”? 

I saw it when I was young, in a black theater.  I was just a classical piano student then.  Later on I made sure to get a copy of the video.  It’s absolutely classic.  Everybody’s smoking cigarettes and looking so cool.

Which was more influential to you, the personality or the music? 

His style.  It was unlike anybody else.  He just coasted along.  He could play the double-time runs – I heard those once in a while – but most of the time it was coasting, and raising that horn high, and swinging!  He almost seemed effeminate at times, but he wasn’t – that was just his style.

Did you know Lester’s work with Basie and Billie? 

My mother played Billie Holiday records, and Lester was on some of those.  I could get the Basie records, too; I got them all.

Did you seem him live?  What was that like? 

I remember that he patted his foot inside his shoe.  You could see his toe moving.  Boy, that’s really cool: he didn’t lift the foot up to tap his foot!


Did you learn any solos of Lester Young when you were coming up?

(Jimmy Heath:) Yes, but since I was an alto player, I mostly learned Charlie Parker solos, However, we all knew that Charlie came from Lester, and that if Bird liked him, he must be special.  There’s that tape of Bird playing some of Lester’s solo on “Shoe Shine Boy”….

Did you see the short “Jammin’ the Blues”? 

Yeah, I saw that when I was young.

Which was more influential to you, the personality or the music? 

A combination.  He was one of the most creative tenor players, of course, but also his lifestyle and use of language was unique.  His descriptions of people were wonderful.  He improvised with language the way he improvised with music.  In my generation, we all have a way of speaking that derives from Lester and Jo Jones and those guys.  When Lester said “Ace and a Half” it was 1:30 at night.  “Doom” meant the end of a conversation.

Did you know Lester’s work with Basie and Billie? 

I loved “Tickle-Toe.”  Maybe the most important one for me was “Easy Does It.”  The way he changed key using those augmented chords: That fascinated me when I was 14 or 15.

Did you seem him live?  What was that like? 

I saw him in Philadelphia several times, in clubs in both North Philly and South Philly.  Argonne Thornton was playing, we called him “Dense,” and guitarist Fred Lacey.  (I never saw the Philharmonic.)  His ability to swing was incredible.  His phrases started on the downbeat or at least emphasized the strong beats.  [Sings “Lester Leaps In.”] He wasn’t ever abstract in the rhythm in a way that was precious or in the way the West Coast guys copied him.  Also Lester impressed me this way: the fact that one note could be so important.  Every one of his notes was important.  Doom.

[Go on to The Power of Vulnerability]