“I’d never heard anyone like him before. He was a stylist with a different sound. A sound I’d never heard before or since.” Count Basie remembers the great Lester Young, born today in 1909.
Jazz Saxophonist Lester Willis Young was born in Woodville, Mississippi, USA. Mentioned in the same revered tones as fellow Tenor players Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane, the man nicknamed “The Prez” learned his trade in his father’s band before moving to Kansas City in the early 1930s.
Along with fellow tenor player Herschel Evans, Young was recruited by Count Basie for his Orchestra – also playing clarinet on recordings by Basie’s Kansas City Five. The Basie association would last on and off for a decade and material from this era, with periodic absences while Young went off to lead his own band and also accompany Billie Holliday on sessions with Teddy Wilson.
Receiving his army callup papers in 1944, Young’s experience of army service was brief and grim, marking the end of his Basie tenure and the start of a downturn in his fortunes. With substance abuse affecting his health and playing prowess, Lester guested with a number of bands and played alongside Coleman Hawkins in Jazz at the Philharmonic.
Losing the battle with the demon drink, Lester finally leapt out at the age of 49 in 1959 – bitter at having seen younger pretenders such as Dexter Gordon and Stan Getz take their inspiration from his earlier work and in his opinion, stolen his audience.
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And here’s some footage of Lester in action: