Lester Young Centennial, originally posted August 27, 2009

1) 18 with Lee K.

2) Oh, Lady!

3) Calling the Masters

4) The Power of Vulnerability

5) Miles Davis and Lester Young

6) A Beginner’s Guide to the Master Takes

7) The End and the Future

8) Top and Bottom

9) Footnotes

10) Further Reading

On the Inaccuracy of These Transcriptions. All swinging jazz has an imposed 6/4 meter over the 4/4. Most of us are used to reading straight-eighths as swing eighths but that’s really just part of the problem. With advanced musicians like Lester Young and Charlie Parker the ornamentation is quite specific rhythmically and never notated accurately. I have not attempted to reflect the 6/4 in my transcriptions. Bird’s 1946 LBG is especially poor in this regard.

There’s also no dynamics, phrasing, or articulation marked. A lot of what Young plays comes from his embouchure, especially the ends of notes; the termination of his longer tones have a “wave.” He also is famous for false fingerings, glissandos, and swooping into certain notes. See Porter’s Lester Young for more explanation of these techniques. Especially since I’m not a saxophonist, these transcriptions don’t reflect this crucial part of the saxophone language. (“Jumpin’ at the Woodside” is especially poor in this regard.)

These transcriptions are merely a guide for listening or a first step towards playing along. The recordings are the text.

Ron Carter at Newport.  I saw Carter sub for David Wong in Roy Haynes’s Fountain of Youth band earlier this month. It was fascinating to hear him navigate a book of music that he didn’t know. Ron blithely played through a tricky arrangement of “Trinkle Tinkle” that featured 7 bar phrases instead of the usual 8: he was completely “wrong” most of the time, but only a fellow musician would have guessed, since he was so swinging and provocative! Then there was “Chelsea Bridge.”

Listening to Ron play the Billy Strayhorn classic by ear just made my day. There’s a great Joe Henderson version with Ron Carter, but that’s from over 40 years ago. It didn’t sound like Ron had played it since. It’s a really hard tune, and Ron’s choices were splendidly intuitive. They had nothing to do with Strayhorn’s changes. What I found most fascinating was that once Ron had decided what he should play, he didn’t budge. He just threw it out there and laid it down. It was just so killing, and a rare chance to hear jazz today like they used to make it.

Roy Haynes and Sid Catlett. Haynes sounds just terrific on the “Bells” Savoy session. His Caribbean-influenced beat is clearly recorded, and he drops amusing bombs in the holes of Young’s playing. He’s clearly “Roy Haynes,” even then.

A contemporary session with Bud Powell’s Modernists is more famous, and on there Haynes sets up the ultra-advanced heads marvelously. But when the horns are blowing, does the Young or Powell session feature more swinging Roy Haynes? Frankly the Powell session has always seemed a bit unsettled to me—it’s not Haynes’s fault, it’s the whole band. It’s probably just the pressure of having to record such hard new music in a limited time.

I wish there were more Sid Catlett and Young together: the complete “Jammin’ the Blues” and the Keynote quartet is all we have. This isn’t about Young, except tangentially: has anyone else noticed what happens when Sid Catlett sits in for the last number on the recently discovered Charlie Parker/Dizzy Gillespie Town Hall session? Max Roach is one of the greatest, of course, but he is awfully young then and the band is pretty frantic-sounding until Catlett takes his place. All of a sudden the music is rocking and rolling in a different way.

Young with Haynes or Catlett with Bird and Diz: interesting examples of the older generation imparting deeper feel to the beboppers.

The Bebop Bass, 1944-1950. Tommy Potter, Curly Russell, Al McKibbon, Nelson Boyd, Clyde Lombardi, etc.: I’m just not sure about any of these bassists. Russell is probably the best of them. At any rate, from what I’ve heard, en masse there’s no comparison with Walter Page, Wellman Braud, Arvell Shaw, Pops Foster, or Jimmy Blanton in terms of heating up the band, at least pre-1950. If anyone knows of any pre-1950 bebop session that gives the bassist the same kind of room to swing Arvell Shaw gets on Louis Armstrong at Symphony Hall, I’d love to know about it.

The great Oscar Pettiford and Ray Brown are on some early bebop records but they can be heard much better in the Fifties, especially Brown. The music hasn’t quite opened up for them to contribute yet before 1950. I do admire Pettiford with Coleman Hawkins and Shelly Manne in 1943.

On several Forties sessions with Lester Young, Rodney Richardson and Red Callender easily outdo most of the bop bassists.

Goodbye Pork Pie Hat. Charles Mingus knew just what he was doing when he created his glorious requiem for Lester Young. While the harmony is dense—possibly it’s the most dense 12 bar blues written up until this point—the melody is mostly diatonic. Indeed, almost the whole melody can be played on the black notes of the piano. Obstinately diatonic melody over rich harmony: the classic Pres sound!

Further Thanks. Especially to Loren Schoenberg and Lewis Porter for answering all manner of questions and unstintingly sharing their vast knowledge. Most of the LBG solos came off of Loren’s hard drive.  Stanley Crouch also offered me insight in conversation. (If you get the chance, ask Stanley about Eddie Barefield sometime.)

Of my peers, Ben Street was the first person to play “She’s Funny That Way” for me. Mike Kanan told me about the “Bird plays Pres” moment and offered general valuable Presidential encouragement. A few years ago I was impressed when Bill McHenry included Young’s solo on “I Can’t Get Started” (the Holiday version) at the Vanguard with Paul Motian on drums.

The transcriptions are done in Finale. I’m still learning my way around that program; they are not at the level of what a professional like Darcy James Argue would do. However, my efforts would look much worse if DJA hadn’t fielded a couple of desperate and frantic phone calls.

[Go on to Further Reading]