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.


Dan / Daniel Gutstein said...

The book about the Oklahoma City Blue Devils (entitled One O'clock Jump, I believe) shed light on a band that formed in a place (Oklahoma) not revered in the ways that other areas (New Orleans, Chicago, Kansas City, etc.) were. Who played in that band but people like Lester Young and Count Basie, if I'm not mistaken. Count Basie, I believe, and maybe Young joined the Bennie Moten outfit, only for Moten to die a short while afterwards. Is it right to say that the Count Basie band crept out of that, which crept out of the Blue Devils? In any event, very few if any recordings of that exist. Unlike Buddy Bolden, though, who is a legend, apparently, without recordings to hear, we can listen to Count Basie or Lester Young, albeit not necessarily the live legendary date you mention. I'd like to get some of that Moten. Like Louis Armstrong's California Concerts 4 CD set, I enjoy Lester Young's dates in D.C. from the 50s. What else? I'm the guy who brought you the Roy. I'm in your apartment. I'm typing at your computer. I'm the one who made the joke that we listen to Lester Young, while your parrotlet sings along: Prez and Bird. That burrito was awesome. I'm going down to the beach, to crash! ----BA

douglang said...


What a fantastic post. It's a perfect introduction to the material (Mosaic box & the legend of Lester), as well as a very thorough response to the music and its context. I don't know what you might think that I know, but whatever arcane knowledge I might have probably came from album liner notes from back in the day when there were very few books about jazz available. Those notes were the major source of information for me, and I've probably forgotten at least as much as I've remembered.

Anyway,I understand your modesty because I share it. However, although you are not a musicologist, as you said, I don't think a musicologist would have produced anything more relevant or compelling or gratifying than you did. You have ears for the music and your enthusiasm for the stories and informational details associated with the music does you (and Lester/Basie) proud.

As you may well know, this music is my favorite of all favorites. If I could time travel, the first place I'd go would be to one of those clubs in Boss Tom Pendergrast's wide open Kansas City, where a rail down the middle of the club kept the black audience and the white audience separate, with the Basie band swingin' on the bandstand.

Dan, I haven't owned a Bennie Moten recording since I jettisoned my vinyl, and it isn't easy figuring out what to buy, or buying it. There is an excelent selection on the ASV Living Era label, "Moten Swing," for only $11.99, but that seems to be permanently out of stock, except for "new and used" copies for $39.99. There is a "Chronogical" series, also, but equally hard to find.

OK, here's one Lester anecdote I remember. After Lester's tenor sax associate in the Basie band Herschel Evans died, Lester insisted that the chair in the sax section next to him be left empty, and he would place Herschel's hat on the seat at each performance in tribute to his rival and friend.


Anonymous said...

I felt incompetent to comment on this post, Mark, until I read the final sentence. To give you the scale of my incompetence: if you played me a CD and asked me "is that Lester Young or Coleman Hawkins?" I could only guess (unless it was "Body and Soul"). (Questions of this kind, though without benefit of recorded sound, were once habitual with us.) Yet as you've suggested, poetry is not for poets alone (though some nonpoets permit themselves to be unreachable to poets); by the same token, music reaches non-musicians whose ears are open. You are, evidently, a case in point. My own ears are at least partly open, and therefore Lester, Louis, Duke and Day (et al) have all transported me. (Incidentally, I recall a reed instrument of another variety at 102 squared minus 2, though it was not in your possession.) I suspect the creativity of any true artist owes much to "artists in different mediums." We could name our examples, and I think we might even each name ourselves.

tmorange said...

my source for the below is lewis porter's 2005 u michigan book entitled Lester Young (pp 23-25), and his main source is an article by one john mcdonough, "The Court Martial of Lester Young," from down beat january 1981.

the draft board had apparently been trying to enlist young throughout 1943-4, finally serving him and jo jones w/induction papers simultaneously at a los angeles gig in late summer 1944. producer/manager norman granz appealed unsuccessfully, even though the syphilis young contracted in the late 1930s was apparently getting worse and there was evidence that he was suffering from occasional epileptic seizures as well. he admitted to smoking pot at his induction interview and even showed up drunk for his physical, all to no avail: he was inducted sept 30 1944.

after 5 weeks of basic infantry training at fort macarthur in california (w/jo jones) he was stationed at fort mcclellan alabama. porter writes:

"Young's army experience was traumatic. Troubles began almost immediately. Charles Carpenter, Young's manager in later years, reported that his saxophone was confiscated and his hair ordered cut. There was an excellent jazz band at McClellan. . . . but Young was not a member." trombonist jimmy cheatham says the warrant officer there, "'a short, fightish' black man with a background in college teaching, took a dislike to Young and refused to let him play" but that the musicians would sometimes be able to sneak him in for a rehearsal. additionally, "[lester's brother] Lee Young feels that Lester may have been partially to blame for his situation.... and probably didn't even know how to request a placement in the band."

porter continues: "Lester was repeatedly placed on KP duty, where, some say, he tried to distill alcohol out of fermented food. Friends of Young, including several officers, began a move to have him discharged because of 'maladjustments to the confines of the army.' But a series of events defeated this effort, beginning when Young entered the hospital for minor rectal surgery on January 1, 1945. He had injured himself running an obstacle course, and was given pain-killing drugs while he recovered in the hospital. On January 24 he was sent back to active duty, but was being watched closely, because while in the hospital he had been diagnosed as a chronic user of drugs and alcohol. On February 1, he was arrested for possession of marijuana and barbiturates."

at the court martial young basically admitted everything, "even disclosed that he didn't feel capable of coping with military service without drugs.... Two psychological reports confirmed that he was unfit for soldiering. Nevertheless, after ninety minutes Young was given the maximum sentence. He was dishonorably discharged from the army and sentenced to a year in the disciplinary barracks of Fort Gordon, Georgia."

not much appears to be known about his stay at fort gordon is that he was allowed to play in a band every sunday and one of the musicians smuggled in whiskey and whatnot for him every week.

this portion of porter's book is essentially unrevised from the book's first (1981) edition. douglas henry daniels, in Lester Leaps in: The Life and Times of Lester "Pres" Young (becaon 2002), especially pages 255ff (partially viewable on google books) offers an updated and more detailed account based on a fresh look at the trial transcripts and court martial records (obtained through FOIA and psychological records all at the institute for jazz studies at rutgers.

mark wallace said...

Tom, thanks for those facts. I've corrected the error in the date and state. More later...

tmorange said...

what do sun ra and dave brubeck have in common? both were conscientious objectors to WWII.

tmorange said...

i'm also relieved i don't have to see that angry baby picture at the top of your blog anymore. still i'll be seeing that shit in my nightmares for years...


mark wallace said...

I think we carry the angry baby wherever we go, Tom. A lot of us anyway.

Anonymous said...

Brubeck served in the military. It's where he met Desmond -- briefly, I think -- and I may be wrong but I think Brubeck had some trying times in the European Theater, like, from the Jerries but he pulled through. I half remember all this from the Desmond bio. ----Blood And

"Jazz Lives" @ said...

It's nice to see someone THINKING about the music instead of repeating the same platitudes. Two comments: the music presented as "Reno Club, 1936" is a bootleg ripoff of a Jazz Archives lp which contained the soundtrack and some unissued alternates from the 1944 Gjon Mili film, JAMMIN' THE BLUES. Anything on this label is suspect -- not the music, but the information on the cover. Second, for real information about Lester's life, check out Frank Buchmann-Moller's two-volume opus. One book is a biography, excellently done, and the other a solography. I am not near my bookshelf as I write this, so can only tell you that the two titles are Lester Young quotations: YOU GOT TO BE ORIGINAL, MAN, and YOU JUST FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE. Keep up the thinking work! I'm attempting the same thing on my jazz blog -- hence the shameless self-promotion! Michael Steinman,

mark wallace said...

Thanks for stopping by, Michael. I went over to your blog and liked it and I've now linked to it. I hope some of my jazz fiend friends stop by so they'll stop bugging me.

Great stuff there about the jazz show in the Nova Scotia red school house, by the way. I've taken trips to Quebec and New Brunswick but never got over that far.

Yeah, I figured out pretty quickly what was really on that fraudulent "Live at the Reno Club" CD. But I'm glad to have the music anyway since I didn't otherwise have another package of "Jammin' The Blues." And I agree with your point over on your blog that people complaining about the Young-Basie Mosaic set giving short shrift to the non-Young Basie music of the same era are quibbling ridiculously. That music is available in many other packages, including the 4-CD set from Columbia only a few year's back, America's #1 Band. It's not complete, I know, but it does avoid the endless alt take boredom and makes for a very playable set. The sound on the Mosaic set is superior, of course.

Henry Ferrini said...

Enjoyed reading the post and the comments. Some of you folks may be interested in film I'm developing with the working title. "LesterLives:the life and times of Lester Young" I've been collecting interviews with people like Jr. Mance, David Amram, BB King and Lee Konitz, musicians who knew Pres and posting them at If an NEA comes through this year I want to travel to New Orleans, Minneapolis, KC, NY and Paris to shoot. My previous films are about the writers Jack Kerouac and Charles Olson.