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Originator of cool Lester Young played the 'purest blues' ever heard

Lester Young in 1946.
Wikimedia Commons
Lester Young in 1946.

In honor of Black History Month, we are taking a look into the career highlights of African American artists and their contribution to the world of jazz and blues.

KNKX's Carol Handley takes a look at saxophonist Lester Young, who was a key “bridge” player from Bebop to Cool Jazz.

Lester Young was a master of the tenor saxophone and recorded in the 30s to the 50s.  His dear friend and collaborator, Billie Holiday, gave him the nickname “Pres” because, to her, he was the greatest tenor player.

Young came into prominence while a member of Count Basie’s Orchestra, but before that he found his musical voice — described as graceful, sophisticated, sweet and lyrical, sensitive and tasteful, relaxed and fluid.

That sparseness of line set him apart from the hard-driving bebop style of the day: artists such as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Stan Getz cited his influence.

That influence was so great, some saxophonists of the day were playing his lines note for note. In fact, Young felt himself so copied that he complained: “They’re picking the bones while the body is still warm.”

Lester Young was well known for his clever phrases, and his flair for language and fashion. He coined the term "bread" for money. When asking how much a gig paid, he’d say, "How does the bread smell?"

He said he had "big eyes" for the things he liked, nicknamed Billie Holiday "Lady Day," which was a play on her name. Lester often commented “I feel a draught” when he sensed a racist atmosphere, and is said to have popularized the term "cool" to mean something fashionable.

He famously wore a porkpie hat, and was especially fond of double-breasted pinstripe suits. And rather than holding his saxophone vertically, he held it high and to the right at a 45-degree angle.

Even before Miles Davis became known for his aloof stage presence, Lester would not grin or smile his statement about racism and stereotypes. "They want everyone who's a negro to be an Uncle Tom, Uncle Remus and Uncle Sam, and I can't make it," he said.

Lester Young was born in Mississippi, and grew up in New Orleans in a musical family.

At 23, he rose to prominence in the Count Basie Orchestra, the first of several rounds working with Basie. He recorded on “One O’Clock Jump,” which became the theme song for the Basie Orchestra. And perhaps his most iconic composition, the self-titular “Lester Leaps In.”

Young replaced Coleman Hawkins in Fletcher Henderson's orchestra for a short stint. They made small-group recordings called The Kansas City Sessions. That included Billie Holiday, who would become a lifelong friend and collaborator.

They cut some elegant music together, displaying an unparalleled musical compatibility. Jazz producer George Avakian, who befriended both of them, believed: “Their recording of ‘A Sailboat in the Moonlight’ is one that expresses their closeness — musically and spiritually — more than any other.”

During World War II, Young was drafted into the Army, but unlike many white musicians who were placed in bands led by Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw, he was assigned regular Army. Young was found with marijuana and alcohol among his possessions, court-martialed and served one year in a detention barracks. That experience inspired his composition "D.B. Blues."

After the Army, Young joined Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) troupe in 1946, and for the next 12 years toured and recorded with them. He toured Europe with Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Quartet.

And in 1957, he appeared with Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge and Gerry Mulligan in a TV special called “The Sound of Jazz,” performing Holiday's tune "Fine and Mellow.”

"Lester got up, and he played the purest blues I have ever heard,” Nat Hentoff, one of the show's producers, later commented. “In the control room we were all crying."

He died in the early morning hours of March 15, 1959, at the age of 49. His death came hours after arriving back in New York from a tour in Paris.

Charles Mingus dedicated an elegy to Young, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," only a few months after his death.

Wayne Shorter, then of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, composed a tribute, called "Lester Left Town."

Don Byron recorded the album “Ivey-Divey” in gratitude for what he learned from studying Lester Young's work; "ivey-divey" was one of Lester Young's common eccentric phrases.

Lester Young, like so many greats, spawned hundreds of imitators, but he was not just the essence of cool — he originated it.