The Lester Young Reader, edited by Lewis Porter, collates all of Young’s own interviews alongside interviews with others, academic studies, and a wide-ranging selection of jazz criticism. Pieces by Nat Hentoff and Ralph Gleason define the romantic conception of Lester Young. Porter’s detailed introductions to each piece provide historical context.
Porter also wrote the first major book on Young in English, Lester Young. The biographical section is relatively small but the book is still valuable for its musicological attitude. Porter’s tone is correct from the first paragraph:
Lester Young lived in a unique world of his own design. It was a highly private world and he allowed only a few others inside it, almost all of them members of his culture, black America.
Some of the book’s statistics are intriguing:
Young’s repertoire and performance practice were shaped during his years of playing in the Southwest. Musicians in that region of the country improvised outstanding instrumental interpretations of the blues. “Everybody plays the blues,” Young said, “and have ’em too.” …While Young was a member of the Basie band in the late 1930’s, about half of the pieces in the repertoire were thirty-two-bar AABA popular song forms – including several based on rhythm changes – played at moderate and fast tempos; one-forth were twelve-bar blues; and the remainder were primarily thirty-two-bar forms other than AABA….
…When Lester began recording regularly with his own groups in the mid-1940’s, he favored a repertoire of one-sixth ballads, one-third blues, one-third moderate- and fast-tempo AABA pieces (about one-fifth based on rhythm changes), and one-sixth other thirty-two-bar song forms. The tune types were the same, but the proportions differed from his Basie days in that there were more ballads and more blues.
Frank Büchmann-Møller’s You Just Fight for Your Life: The Story of Lester Young and You Gotta Be Original, Man!: The Music of Lester Young are essential volumes for Young fans. You Gotta Be Original, Man! is a complete “solography,” an annotated guide to every Lester Young recording with hundreds of musical examples. If the transcriptions were 30% more accurate I’d think this solography was one of the best books on jazz. Even as is, it’s a valuable guide to finding your way around the canon.
The biography You Just Fight for Your Life is full of fascinating interviews and reviews. Büchmann-Møller lets these documents speak for themselves. When his opinions do take center stage, Büchmann-Møller offers original insight:
It is incredibly difficult to start by playing for eight hours and then go on to play in jam sessions for a further five or six hours. One way of overcoming the fatigue involved is to smoke marijuana, something which practically all the Kansas City musicians did – as did many musicians in general. Lester had learned to smoke from Budd Johnson and used it daily for the rest of his life.
Büchmann-Møller is influenced by the legendary Jan Evensmo, a fellow Scandinavian researcher who coined the term “solography” for annotated descriptions of a given jazz artist’s improvisations. I managed to look the now rare History of Jazz Tenor Saxophone: Black Artists.
Evensmo is ludicrously opinionated—he’s particularly strict with Young and the Basie band in general, and perhaps he’s ultimately more in Coleman Hawkins’s corner—but after a while his opinions become more amusing than grating. Hell, he’s actually listened to all this stuff, I guess he deserves the right to sound off on it. Here he is on the same Young 1938 studio LGB that started me off on transcribing Lester:
Rarely does anything so uninspired come from his horn, and compared with the 1936 version, the result is a catastrophe, or let’s say embarrassing. With Chu Berry’s guest appearance, the record could have been a sensation, now it is best to forget the whole meeting. Postscript to the second edition: I have been flogged for this nasty comment, and I admit to being too hard on Lester here. But he does not play very well, no!!!
As I said before, I love this solo.
Dave Gelly has written two books about Lester Young plus the extensive and excellent liner notes to the Verve box set. The recent Being Prez supersedes a much earlier and smaller volume, Lester Young. Gelly’s smooth prose is a pleasure to read.
Successful bandleaders were not, on the whole, sensitive or retiring souls. If the words of their former employees are anything to go by, the spectrum of their characters covered martinets, sadists, cold-fish and all-round sons-of-bitches. A few were recognizable as human beings; Harry James and Woody Herman being two. Basie was in a class of his own. From about the age of thirty he had been rehearsing the part of genial, absent-minded old buffer. He played it to perfection, but was canny and always got his own way. He also relied on other people to do the dirty work. Lester Young was shy, sweet-natured, impractical and apt to run away at the first sign of trouble or conflict. He was in his element on the back seat of a tour bus, commenting on the passing scene in his private language, giving his friends funny names, smoking pot, shooting craps and losing money. The neutral observer would readily conclude that here was not one of nature’s bandleaders.
Douglas Henry Daniels’s mammoth Lester Leaps In: The Life and Times of Lester “Pres” Young has the most detail on Young’s pre-Kansas City years. He also looks at contemporary reception of Young’s 40’s music in an eye-opening way: when Young was successful, heroic, and influential in the Black community, he was simultaneously being written off as a has-been by white jazz critics.
What Daniels’s book gets at is the way in which that community and the music were more deeply intertwined than anybody who wasn’t there can understand. He makes a serious attempt to imagine what the community was really like and what the “standards” for music and interaction really were. After quoting DownBeat’s scathing review of the Gene DiNovi session (“honky, faltering, out-of-tune meanderings”) and talking to DiNovi himself (“funny goings on…he was telling [Leonard] Feather he would have preferred to be there with his own rhythm section”) Daniels offers this compelling analysis:
Record reviewers did not usually have access to this kind of background and often did not take into account the unrehearsed and essentially improvised nature of the music. Nor did they consider, in this case, whether Young was recording with members of his own combo. Indeed, perhaps the sessions were not his best – but they were evaluated as if every session always “clicked.” This in itself suggested the degree to which critics used the wrong standards – and Eurocentric ones, at that – to judge on-the-spot performances by musicians who did not always play together.
This was one of the first jazz biographies produced by Black Studies. Let’s hope they keep coming: Black writers have been underrepresented in the annals of jazz criticism, and their voice is desperately needed in the choir.
A few more authors and essays not collected in The Lester Young Reader should be mentioned.
Gunther Schuller’s detailed analysis of Young in The Swing Era is among Schuller’s finest hours as a jazz critic. This paragraph was influential on my look at what Miles took from Pres:
Lester’s generally diatonic ear, his emphasis on both the melodic use of fourths and fifths intervals and harmonically on the sixth and ninth steps of the scale, combined with his linear conception of phrasing – all these have had far-reaching influences, even into our own time. For, essentially, the modal playing of the 1960s and 1970s had its inception with Lester Young. So did the whole modern linear melodic approach to jazz improvisation. I would argue that a concept such as George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization was unthinkable without Lester’s prior explorations of such directions. I am referring here not so much to specific types of tonal or modal organization – although Lester can also be seen as the father of such modern offshoots – as to the general concept of freeing melodic design from a rigid relationship with its harmonic underpinnings. The notion that melodic ideas can assume a certain degree of autonomy, independent of any particular harmonic progression, really began with Lester.
Stanley Crouch nailed the mystique in the opening paragraph of a long set of notes to a Verve twofer:
Lester Young always seems so much more than the many good things said about him. There is a certain mystery to the man and to his work: some actions so willful and others so apparently responsive to tragic circumstances, that motivation and the socially-determined interface in an often attractive fog appropriate to the unpredictable rhythms and perspectives of his improvisations. His raunchy conversation, his lyricism, the exceptionally fey manner in which he carried himself after what was a terrible tenure in the army during World War II, the hurdle of ambivalently hip speech he threw up in listeners’ faces, and his ability to pick up his tenor and sail his own sailboat in his own moonlight – all these things made him a precious gift to those who thought they understood him.
Witty and passionate, Loren Schoenberg is the great advocate of Walter Page and one of the deepest listeners of Lester Young. He’s written extensive liner notes to The Lester Young/Count Basie Sessions 1936-1940, The Complete Savoy Recordings, and The Complete Kansas City Sessions, and there are also standalone essays collected in The Lester Young Reader and The Oxford Companion to Jazz. Taken as a whole this is my favorite writing on Young. (Some of these texts can be found at Schoenberg’s website, and his book, The NPR Curious Listener’s Guide to Jazz, is very good.)
After years of avidly listening to everything Young recorded, Schoenberg remains delightfully enthralled. This is from the liner notes to the Complete Savoy Recordings:
One of the double-edged facets of Young’s genius was that he never developed the sheen of consistency that was an important attribute of many of his peers. Men like Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson and Benny Carter never seemed to let their feelings affect their instrumental acuity. But as the years went by, that is exactly what Lester did (abetted by an ever-growing dependence on alcohol), and his art was at once the deeper and the messier for it. You could always tell how he was feeling from how he sounded, and it was this emotional honesty that made every utterance so entrancing, even when it was hard to bear.
Loren has been my “godfather” while working on these centennial posts, which could not have been written without Loren’s help, especially by suppling rare recordings and a few phone numbers.
However, I’m indebted not to just Schoenberg but to all the writers above for contributing to the understanding of one of the most well-researched of all jazz musicians. It’s been a real pleasure to read up on him in such detail. 100 years in: I wonder if he’d be surprised. “Nobody likes old Pres,” Young is reported to have said in a low moment the early Fifties. Surely the attention and love of all these authors is proof of the opposite.
Further thanks to 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. I returned the serve with playing Pres’s solo on “Lady Be Good” with Motian and Reid Anderson the following season at the same club.