Saturday, July 12, 2008
Lester Young: Trivia and Conundrums
Friends in town this weekend, one of whom brought me a copy of the Roy Eldridge Mosaic box, containing his famous session with Dizzy Gillespie and a lot of other lesser known material, including some early late 40s/50s jukebox sides. I haven’t had much chance to absorb all that yet, although we’ve been listening to it. In the last few weeks I’ve been playing a lot of another Mosaic set, Classic Columbia, Okeh, and Vocalion Lester Young with Count Basie (1936-40). Most serious jazz fans will have much of this material already, if not all the alternate takes, but the amazing sound of the Mosaic set makes it worth it for those of us who think some of these songs are among the absolute highlights of jazz.
I’m not a musicologist, and I and other friends are still waiting on written comments about this set from our influential afficionado Doug Lang, who will know things about this material that no other human being does, and for reasons that are unfathomable. In the meantime what I have is some trivia, as well as a few reflections which I hope might provoke a bit of discussion from those of you interested in the subject.
First a bit of personal trivia. In this house, Lester Young is also a Pacific Parrotlet (Forpus Pacificus). If anyone is in charge around here, it’s him. He is perhaps not as virtuostic as the human musician after whom he is named, but he comes close, with a rather astonishing set of riffs and tones for a musician of his diminutive size, including the ability to say and whistle Dizzy Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts” in three different registers. He began recording before he was three years old.
Lester Young the human was not recorded until the age of 27, even though he had been a well-known musician for some years before that.
In fact a number of his most famous musical moments don’t exist on record. There’s the 1933 cutting contest with Coleman Hawkins, in which the then little known Young was said to have outperformed the man considered the premiere tenor of the day (note: as far as I know, unlike slam poetry contests cutting sessions were never judged, so it’s not entirely clear how “outperformed” would have been determined here other than that many people said so). Then there’s the disastrous stint with the Fletcher Henderson band that followed, when Young briefly replaced Hawkins in the band and Henderson’s other musicians hated him because he wouldn’t play more conventional chord structures and essentially drove him out of the band. Does anyone know whether this recording is really of the 1936 short wave radio broadcast from Kansas City’s Reno Club that jazz critic John Hammond heard and followed up on by helping the Basie band come to Chicago? Frankly I doubt it, and the only reviewer who responded to it on Amazon agrees. I don’t think there’s any recording either of the December 1937 performance of “Sweet Sue,” for which Young improvised 83 choruses, flooring all listeners. Neither you or I can hear any of these famous moments, and therefore separating the fact of the music from the legend of it is impossible. Young shares in that with the earliest generation of jazz musicians, people whose fame even more than his rests on oral legend rather than verifiable musical achievement.
Young literally held the tenor sax in a way no one else did, sideways and out to his right, almost at the angle of a flute though not quite. In this and many other ways, in the world of flamboyant jazz personalities he stood out as eccentric from the first.
He was essentially Modernist; depending on how one defines these things, the first great Modernist of jazz. Although he remains lyrical, his lyricism works outside and around typical chord progressions of the era. Although his greatest moments are solos, there are some Basie songs in which Young plays the whole time, commenting on what’s happening and adding unexpected textures. The relation of jazz to Modernism is of course complex, since even earlier New Orleans jazz is bound up with the Modernist era. It’s more than arguable that much of Young’s originality is based on his close understanding of trumpet players Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke. But Young’s solos are amazing not only for how they participate in the Basie band but also how they stand out and away from it as a kind of counterpoint, adding to the uniqueness of the band’s interplay (revolutionary itself at the time) and changing what jazz had been up until then, opening up the idea of the solo in a way that Charlie Parker would later transform much further. Even at fast tempos, Young’s solos were not only complex but also relaxed and always powerfully evocative, combining technical innovation with emotional profundity.
In relation to the issue of his role in the band, as great as his work with Basie was, Young also often felt held back by the band and left it after not too many years. Quoted in the Mosaic notes is a 1949 Down Beat interview with Young done by Pat Harris, in which Young says, “But Basie was like school. I used to fall asleep in school, because I had my lesson, and there was nothing else to do. The teacher would be teaching those who hadn’t studied at home, but I had, so I’d go to sleep. Then the teacher would come home and tell my mother. So I put that down. In Basie’s band... You had to just sit there, and play it over and over again. Just sit in that chair...”
Artie Shaw on Lester’s clarinet playing: “Lester played better clarinet than a lot of guys who played better clarinet than he did.” Shaw’s comment is one of many about Young that raise the issue of how many people felt his playing was better than that of more conventional virtuosos.
Does anyone know that much about Lester Young’s supposedly life-changing experiences in the U.S. Army? Arrested in early 1945, he was put in the brig in Georgia. Many stories about him say that he was “never the same after that,” although it’s hard to pin down exactly how he was different and how much of that difference was related to his jail experiences and how much to the growing alcoholism that would kill him at age 50. Stories have it that after the war, he was much quieter and without his earlier exuberance, and that in conversation he increasingly mumbled his own original lingo that very few people could decipher. But what exactly happened to him in prison? It doesn’t seem that anyone knows, although the implication has long been that he was the victim of some sort of white-on-black assault. Certainly there’s no way that it could have been pleasant for a black man who had been a music star in Chicago to find himself in a South Carolina prison.
I think I’ve finally come to a better understanding of the critical split that exists on the subject of whether Young’s music was never again as good after the Basie band. Some critics assert it almost absolutely (for instance the writers of the Penguin guide to jazz) while others deny it in various degrees. What I’ve noticed is this. For the most part, he never consistently played with musicians of the caliber of the Basie band again, although there are a number of obvious exceptions, the session with Teddy Wilson among others. Young, listed as leader on many of these sessions, is thus more often the central focus, with longer solos, something he wanted, while he’s simultaneously surrounded by less interesting interplay. He has also slowed down somewhat, with as much power and mood as ever, in fact maybe much more, but less fast-paced compactness and startlingly original phrases. He stretches out at greater length, plays less notes and holds them longer. This issue has been said to connect with the problem of the jail experience, although exactly how is impossible to say. But it also reminds me of many artists and sports heroes who as they age cut back on the pyrotechnics, something often considered worthwhile because it’s less about flash and more about substance. By the late 40s and early 50s, alcohol problems are taking their toll. Although all the way through the 50s Young still sometimes plays overwhelmingly powerful solos, he’s more and more frequently unfocused and stumbling, although the intensity of mood he can establish even while botching notes puts him in common with Billie Holiday as one of the musicians whose late work can be technically rough but sometimes emotionally devastating. His late playing might even be called “shambolic,” a term that is a dividing point among jazz and rock listeners even to this day; the issue involves how one thinks about the technically flawed but powerfully emotive performance. It is often said that his last great solo was on the 1958 “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” in a session that mainly shows Young on the verge of collapse, someone recently out of the hospital who will be dead in a few months.
Add it all up, and Young is the first great eccentric Modernist of jazz, stranger and more original than his contemporaries, at times as much legend as reality, but also capable, simply, of some of the most powerfully memorable moments in the history of his genre. I’m sure I don’t know anything about Lester Young that the real afficionados don’t, but thinking again about his music has reminded me how much writers can learn from artists in different mediums.