The death in New York last month of forty-nine year old tenor saxophonist Lester Young deprived jazz of its most gifted figure from the rapidly receding golden age of the 1930s. Of course, it was a golden age, although nobody has so far felt impelled to romanticise it up to the bloated proportions of the New Orleans and Chicago mystiques. It was a period in jazz history when the melodic resources of its most advanced exponents achieved a perfect balance with the harmonic developments of the day. Many richly endowed jazzmen were naturally suited stylistically to the musical environment in which they found themselves, and the most richly endowed of them all was Lester Young.
He was one of the most remarkable and inscrutable of creative artists, but it is doubtful whether too unwieldly a legend will be heaped upon his head as it was upon Bix and is being upon Charlie Parker. The reasons are the same as those which apply to the Swing Age which nurtured Young. The 1930s are too badly marred by the stigma of commercialism for dilettantes to cry into their beer and lament the passing of great days. The reactionary jazz fan even has more sympathy for the most anarchistic beboppers than he has for the musicians who joined the big bands of the period, because a reactionary can at least perceive the nature of a revolution, and the nuttiest bigot could hardly accuse, say, Thelonious Monk of reaching for the fleshpots. For this reason, Young’s prewar background usually seems somehow discreditable to the diehard. What’s that? Reading music? In dance halls? Disgraceful fellow!
‘Within a few years of “Lady be Good” there were almost no tenor saxophonists left who played in the Hawkins manner. Everybody tried to produce the Young tone’
There is one other reason why Young will not end up being portrayed on the silver screen by the Kirk Douglas of the 1960s, and that is that nobody could claim that he was cut down in his prime, as Bix possibly was and Parker probably was. Although Lester was active virtually up to the eve of his fatal heart attack, and although he was highly regarded by the same critical phalanx which once dismissed his innovations as the aberrations of a perverse eccentric, he was no longer a figure of real active significance in jazz.
The fat years were the experimental ones in Kansas City in the early 1930s, the days of maturity with the Basie band and Billie Holiday, days when Young was literally creating a new jazz vocabulary and a new tone with which to express it. His work over the last fifteen years represents a gentle though unalarming decline, from which flashes of the old master may occasionally be glimpsed. Unfortunately, too many of today’s enthusiasts know only the Lester of the postwar hi-fi period, and are therefore tempted either secretly to dismiss him as grossly overrated, or to pay lipservice to a legend they do not understand. They have only, however, to glance back at the vintage Young of twenty years ago to discover what the fuss was all about.
They will stumble upon one of the most startlingly original and highly literate styles in all jazz, a tonal conception commonplace enough today but undreamed of when first Young introduced it. When in 1934 he replaced the then master of the instrument Coleman Hawkins in the Fletcher Henderson band, his fellow-musicians thrust Hawkins records at him and advised him to ape them as closely as possible, a situation of overwhelming irony. Young, with considerable artistic courage, declined the advice and left what was then the most coveted job in the jazz world to continue on his own highly idiosyncratic way.
By 1936 with Basie he had already cut his version of “Lady Be Good” which cast aside the conventions of twenty years of tenor saxophone playing. By challenging the gushing, distinctly “hot” sound of Hawkins and substituting a new metallic, distilled tone, he led his unperceptive contemporaries to call him a fugitive alto player. He also introduced new aural shapes into the jazz context more sophisticated than anything which had gone before. Within a few years of “Lady be Good” there were almost no tenor saxophonists left who played in the Hawkins manner. Everybody tried to produce the Young tone and acquired the surface effects of the Young vocabulary.
‘[He] introduced for the first time into the jazz context the quality of wit, as distinct from the broad humour and slapstick of satirists like Fats Waller’
That vocabulary was wonderfully coherent and integrated, and it introduced for the first time into the jazz context the quality of wit, as distinct from the broad humour and slapstick of satirists like Fats Waller. Young is the great epigrammaticist of jazz, and today his aphorisms are so widely diffused that many of those who plagiarise him are unaware they are doing so.
Time may well show that Young’s best loved work is the extraordinary partnership with the singer Billie Holiday. Those casual, hastily assembled recordings of the middle and late 1930s represent the highest peak ever attained of the informal jam-session interpretation of current pop material. In the Holiday-Wilson context, Lester Young is indeed very much more than an accompanying voice behind the Holiday solos. He is as vital a part of the vocal chorus as Billie’s voice, and on sides like “Laughing at Life” and “Without Your Love” it is difficult not to regard the performance as an antiphony between voice and saxophone. It was a symbiotic relationship of the subtlest aesthetic sensitivity.
The Young who recorded in his last years with JATP was by no means the passenger that some of his generation have become in the current world of jazz. He was still capable of deeply emotional playing, but he was only tenuously related to the quicksilver young man of the 1930s who so exasperated his fellow tenor-player in the Basie band, the late Herschel Evans. The later Lester Young played with an indolence and a grosser tone which were really alien to the beauty of the prewar style. In this sense, his imitators really did sound more like Lester Young than Lester Young did, for by the time the Allen Eagers and Paul Quinichettes had got off an almost perfect likeness, Lester himself had changed almost beyond recognition.
‘Young’s style freed the soloist from the hot breath of the romantic, from the great tide of arpeggios, taught jazz the lessons of economy’
The misconception about Young is that he gave to the tenor saxophone a coherence it had never possessed before. The truth is that it was Hawkins and not Young who elevated the saxophone from its status as a vaudeville joke. What Lester Young did was to offer to the young musician an alternative coherence to the one Hawkins had created. Young’s style freed the soloist from the hot breath of the romantic, from the great tide of arpeggios, taught jazz the lessons of economy it is still inclined to overlook. The superb lucidity of his thought, the great formal beauty of his solos and the quick-silver properties of his technique in the days of his greatness ensure beyond any shadow of doubt that in the story of jazz he will figure as one of its very few genuine geniuses. But it is vital to remember that when one regards Lester Young in this way, what one really means is the Young Lester.