Lester Willis Young, one of the most influential musicians in the history of jazz, was born on August 27, 1909, in Woodville, Mississippi. After a lengthy apprenticeship spent in numerous black territory bands in the Midwest, Young learned to read music at sight, achieved complete control of the instruments he played (which by then were tenor sax and clarinet), and developed some extraordinarily original jazz ideas. By the early 1930s, he had grown to six feet one. His height and the combination of his light skin, penetrating green eyes, and tiny feet (size seven), made him a striking individual. He also had begun to accumulate a number of personal eccentricities that only heightened his individuality. His dress, manner of speech, and humor were exceedingly different, even in the somewhat unorthodox world of dance band musicians. But it was in his music that Lester Young was most individual.
His professional activity in the early 1930s was continuous, though hardly high profile. The low point (despite the high hopes of everyone concerned), came when he was hired by Fletcher Henderson in the spring of 1934, replacing Coleman Hawkins, whose stentorian tenor saxophone stylings had been a prominent feature of Henderson’s band for years. Young’s entire approach to the tenor saxophone was antithetical to Hawkins’s. It appears that Henderson and his band were not prepared for this huge change, consequently, Young’s employment with Henderson was short lived and exasperating. (Lester requested a letter from Henderson stating that he had not been fired for musical inadequacy, which Henderson gladly provided to him. Young’s playing simply didn’t fit into the Henderson band’s style.)
Incredibly, even though Young had been a professional musician since approximately 1923, he did not make his first record until the autumn of 1936. His playing on the recording of “Lady Be Good” (ARC/Vocalion on November 9, 1936), with a small group of musicians from Count Basie’s earliest band, can only be described as astonishing. Young’s approach to jazz, which in my view was an extension in many ways (principally rhythmic) of what Bix Beiderbecke had started, was the first full-scale alternative to the approach developed by Louis Armstrong. His tenor saxophone sound was also quite different from that used by all others then. He attributed its light “coolness” to the influence of C-melody sax pioneer Frank Trumbauer.
After disastrous experiences in the military in World War II which in my opinion were a result in substantial part of racial discrimination, Young was dishonorably discharged. After this, he gradually descended into a misama of alcoholism. Paradoxically, it was during this same time that he achieved his most widespread success as a performer, dividing his time between Jazz at the Philharmonic and leading his own small groups. His influence on other tenor saxophonists was greatest in the later 1940s and 1950s. Lester Young died in Manhattan on March 15, 1959, suffering from symptoms of cirrhosis of the liver.
The most concise telling of the story of how this recording came to be made is contained in the Notes on the Music written by Richard M. Sudhalter in the “Giants of Jazz” series of recordings, “Lester Young” (1980), Time-Life Books, page 30: “John Hammond had admired Young’s work with King Oliver and with Fletcher Henderson’s band in New York in 1934, but Young had soon left to return to Kansas City and eventually to rejoin Count Basie, whose band Hammond had caught one night on his car radio. Electrified by the sound of the Basie outfit broadcasting from Kansas City’s Reno Club, Hammond persuaded Willard Alexander of Music Corporation of America to book the band, and was attempting to connect the Count with the American Record Company when Decca nipped in ahead of him and signed Basie to a three year contract. (Actually it was a two year contract–MZ.) Hammond was still determined to record the group. While the band was in Chicago in the fall of 1936, he arranged a small-band date. The Decca contract ruled out using the Basie name, so the group took its title from the names of drummer Jo Jones and trumpeter Carl Smith. Hammond set the session for 10:00 a.m. planning to catch the musicians before they went to bed because he felt that ‘jazz players are better before sleep than after, particularly following a night on the bandstand.’ The Jones-Smith musicians had played at the Grand Terrace until 4 a.m., then had jammed away the rest of the night. They were in fine fettle.The band crowded into the 12 by 15 foot studio where the acoustics were so poor that Jones had to abandon his bass drum because its thumps made the recording stylus cut through the groove.”
“Lady, Be Good”
Recorded by Jones-Smith, Incorporated for ARC/Vocalion in Chicago on November 9, 1936.
Carl “Teddie” Smith(#), trumpet; Lester Young, tenor saxophone; William “Count” Basie, piano; Walter Page, bass; Jonathan “Jo” Jones, drums
This classic recording starts with one chorus of Count Basie’s aphoristic piano paraphrasing Gershwin’s melody,(*) supported by Walter Page’s walking bass (in 4/4 meter), and Jo Jones’s high-hat cymbals (in 2/4).
This “two against four” rhythm would soon be used by many of the hipper swing bands, as it is used here, to set up the shift to 4/4 as the soloist began to play. The rhythmic effect of this is to launch the soloist into his solo. Lester leaps in, as he so often did, with a burst of notes, here an ascending three note phrase. From that point on for two choruses, Young uses rhythm in how he phrases his notes in so elastic a way that he seems to careen through his solo, glancing off of the solid rhythmic base laid down behind him by Basie, Page and Jones. Young’s sound was what tenor saxophonists call “light,” meaning it had a keening quality that was was antithetical to the “heavy,” dense, sonorous sound typified in the swing era by jazz tenor titan Coleman Hawkins. The result of this light sound being allied with great rhythmic elasticity was that Young floated through his solos, whereas Hawkins bustled.
And then there was Young’s quicksilver technique. It is readily apparent from his playing on this recording that he is a total master of the tenor saxophone. Yet his vast technique never used in a gratuitous way:
every note leads to a cunning phrase; every phrase is a relevant part of a compelling completely integrated musical statement. Another way of saying this is that Lester Young tells a musically integrated story with this solo. He builds through two choruses, reaching a climax in the bridge of the second chorus. There is not a redundant or non-essential note anywhere in this solo.
The cup-muted trumpet solo that follows Young’s playing was by Carl Smith, a solid trumpeter then in Count Basie’s band. He was subbing on this recording for Wilbur “Buck” Clayton, the featured soloist in Basie’s band then, who unfortunately had split his lip just before this recording session as a result of strenuous playing at Chicago’s Grand Terrace Ballroom, where the Basie band was then appearing. The letdown in intensity in Smith’s solo from what Young had played is noticeable, though Smith’s solo is certainly well performed, despite Lester’s paradoxically stodgy riffing behind him. After Smith’s solo, Basie’s piano and Walter Page’s bass prepare the way for the joyous group finale.
One of the better analyses of Young’s solo was done by Gunther Schuller in his book “The Swing Era…The Development of Jazz,” (1989) Oxford University Press, pages 230-235. It includes full notation of Young’s solo. Corrections of erroneous information found in the Schuller book has been provided by Loren Schoenberg.
(*) George Gershwin’s title for this piece is “Oh Lady Be Good.”
(#) Carl “Teddie” Smith is the least known of the musicians who appeared on this historic recording. For many years, indeed decades after issuance of this record, Smith was referred to as Carl “Tatti” Smith. This error was pointed out and corrected in the wonderful book Swing Era Scrapbook…The Teenage Diaries and Radio Logs of Bob Inman, 1936-1938, edited by Ken Vail, (2005) Scarecrow Press, page 221. The photo at right from that book shows a postcard containing the autographs of the members of the Leo Mosley band which dates from June 30, 1937, including trumpeter Carl “Teddie” Smith. Note the underlining beneath “Teddie.”
Sonic restoration ans digital remastering by Mike Zirpolo.