Mississippi Writers and Musicians
MISSISSIPPI MUSICIANS: Lester Young


Lester Young Lester Young1909-1959

Major Works

  • Live At The Royal Roost
  • Prez is Blue
  • The President Plays
  • It Don't Mean A Thing
  • Prez and Sweets
  • The Jazz Giants
  • The Real Kansas City
  • In a Mellow Tone
  • Standards of Excellence
  • Lady Be Good
  • Ultimate Lester Young
  • The Best of Lester Young
  • Lester Leaps In
  • Prez's Hat
  • Lester Swings Again
  • Lester Young On The Air
  • Jammin' With Lester
  • Prez At His Very Best

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Lester Young: A Biography Lester Young Jazz Masters 30
By Hashim Welch (SHS)

Lester Willis Young, nicknamed Prez, was born in Woodville, Mississippi, on August 27, 1909.  Lester was taught how to play music by his father, Willis Handy Young, who was a very good musician in his own right.  Lester was first taught to play the violin, the trumpet, and the drums.(Early years).  He later decided to stick to the alto saxophone, despite the fact that the drums were his favorite instrument to play.  When he was eleven years of age, Lester and his father moved to Minneapolis where they formed a family band and Lester played alto saxophone with them at age 13.(Bennett).  He had a long history of disagreements with his father, and this caused him to leave the band when he was 19 (Early Years).
Lester Young
After leaving his family's band, Lester went on to play with Art Bronson in Phoenix, Arizona.  He played with Bronson until 1930, when he moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota and played with various bands.  He also took a brief trip back home to play with his family.  In 1932, while playing at a club with Frank Hines, Young was signed as a member of "The Thirteen Original Blue Devils."  He and the other band members moved to Kansas City to join Bennie Moten near the end of 1933.

During the years following 1933, Lester Young played in bands with Bennie Moten, George Lee, King Oliver, Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson, Andy Kirk, and many others.  In 1936, when Young rejoined Count Basie, he rose to national fame for the first time.  Lester's rising fame was significant in making Kansas City a major jazz city at this time.  Of all the places he played, Lester will probably always be remembered as a Kansas City jazz man.  For the next several years he and Basie toured, and recorded.  He recorded on recordings featuring Billie Holiday who gave him the nickname, "The Prez."  (She nicknamed him for president of the tenor saxophone, while he bestowed on her the name 'Lady Day'.)  In the early 1940's, Young played in small bands in the Los Angeles area alongside his brother, Lee Young, and musicians such as Red Callender, Nat 'King' Cole and Al Sears.  During this period he returned briefly to the Basie band, making some excellent recordings, and also worked with Dizzy Gillespie.  Late in 1944 he was conscripted into the US Army but was discharged in mid-summer the following year, having spent part of his military service in hospital and part in an army prison. In the mid 40's he was filmed by Gjon Mili in the classic jazz short, Jammin' The Blues, a venture which was co-produced by Norman Granz.  At this time he also joined Granz's "Jazz At The Philharmonic," package, remaining with the organization for a number of years.  He also led small groupsHashim Welch, SHS researcher for club and record dates, toured the USA and visited Europe.

Young's style was the traditional swing style that will always be linked with Basie's bands.  Several famous musicians including Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, and Al Cohn were greatly influenced by Young.  A majority of the songs Young played while in the Basie band where 32 bar blues with an AABA structure.  When he began recording on his own, he mixed together ballads, blues, and moderate and fast tempo AABA structured tunes.  He gradually moved toward his famous soft tone that inspired, most notably, Stan Getz.

In the late 1950's, Lester began to have health problems.  While he was on tour, he continued to record and make concert and festival appearances and was featured on television's The Sound Of Jazz in 1957. In these final years his health was slowly deteriorating; and his band broke up.  Lester went on tour with Miles Davis, but was very disheartened to receive bad ratings.  Despite this recent downfall, the Encyclopedia Yearbook of Jazz named Lester Young the greatest tenor saxophone ever in 1956 (Late Years).  Young had taken to drinking excessively and wasn't eating well.  It is likely that the disrespect he was beginning to receive led him to drink even more.  Young had other complications including an untreated case of syphilis.  He was admitted to a hospital in 1957 and was treated for malnutrition, alcoholism, and cirrhosis of the liver.  The doctors told Young he didn't have much longer to live.  He returned home in 1958 and was actually able to tour again briefly.  Lester Young passed away on March 15, 1959.

According to Ken Burns and his film series for PBS on Jazz, Young's creed was simple: "You've got to be original, man." Yet he rose in the ranks of the big bands during the age of jazz conformity.  Burns adds, "Young's fierce individualism,  no less than his liquid tone, distinguished him from the ensemble as the essence of cool. He swung like mad, but he stayed cool.
 He went off on his own in the Forties, and over nearly twenty years his  inimitable legato phrasing spawned hundreds of imitators. They spoke,  in the early Fifties, of the Birth of the Cool."   Ken Burns says that Lester Young was its daddy.

Young is buried in the Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn, Kings County, New York.

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Timeline

1909 - Lester Young is born in Woodville, Mississippi

1928 - Left his family's band and changed his instrument to tenor saxophone

1932 - Lester Young joined "The Thirteen Original Blue Devils."

1936 - October 9, was Lester's first recording date with Count Basie Oh, Lady Be Good! (with Jones - Smith Incorporated, Vocalion, 1936

1937--Honeysuckle Rose  (with Count Basie & His Orchestra, Decca, 1937)

1937-- Pagin' the Devil  (with the Kansas City Six, Commodore, 1938)

1939--Twelfth Street Rag (with Count Basie & His Orchestra, Vocalion, 1939)

1944 - Lester was conscripted into the US Army

1956--This Year's Kisses  (Norgran, 1956)

1957 --Lester was featured on television's The Sound Of Jazz,
         --played Polka Dots and Moonbeams  (with Count Basie & His Orchestra, Verve, 1957)

1959 - Lester Young died on March 15. 

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Related Websites

Lester Young was born into a musical life in Mississippi.

Excellent information about the  musical life of Lester Young.

CD Review: Lester Young With The Oscar Peterson Trio Lester Young With The Oscar Peterson Trio Lester Young (Verve) by Jason R. Laipply.

Greatday in harlem: Lester Young  Lester Young the wonderful tenor saxophone swing Lester Young's original style of saxophone playing combined the light sounds of Jimmy Dorsey with the alternative fingerings and effects to create a darker, bluesier tone.

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Bibliography

Gelly D.: Lester Young (Tunbridge Wells England, 1984).

Porter Lewis: Lester Young ( Boston and London, 1985).

Daniels D.: "Big Top Blues: Jazz-minstel Bands and the Young Family Tradition," jf, xviii ( 1986), 133.

Hentoff N: "Lester Young," in N. Shapiro) and N. Hentoff, eds: TheJazz Makers ( New York, 1957/R1975,1979 as The Jazz Makers: Essays on the Greats of Jazz), 243-75.

Jepsen: A Discography of Lester Young (Copenhagen 1968).

"Lester Young." May 2003. <http://legacyrecordings.com/kenburnsjazz/a_young.html>

Burns J: "Lester Young: the Postwar Years," J&B, i/4 (1971), 4.

Cash B.: An Anyalysis fo the Improvisation Technique of Lester Willis Young, 1936-1942 (thesis, U. of Hull, England, 1982).

Balliett W.: "Pres," Jelly Roll, Jabbo and Fats ( New York, and Oxford, England, 1983) [colln of previously pubd. articles], 119.

Daniels D. H.: "Big Top Blues: Jazz-minstrel Bands and the Young Family Tradition," jf, xviii (1986), 133.

Gottlieb L.: "Why so Sad, Prez?," Jazz: a Quarterly of American Music, no. 3 (1959), 185.

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Updated December 3, 2008
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