Lester Young with Count Basie: 1936-41
by Loren Schoenberg
In a jam session in Detroit in December 1937, he (Young) improvised eighty-three choruses to Sweet Sue, without moving from his place. That, any initiate will tell you, marks a great and imaginative jazz artist.
Whereas [Coleman]Hawkins was all power and confidence, Young was cool and detached. Irrespective of tempo, his melodic invention was always strange and haunting. On a jump number, he would impose a weird mood; a ballad was transformed into a nostalgic song, searching and mysterious.
Lester's style was light, and as I said, it took him maybe five choruses to warm up. But then he would really blow; then you couldn't handle him in a cutting session.
Mary Lou Williams
The sound of Lester Young on the old Basie records - real beautiful tenor sound, pure sound. That's it. For alto, too. Pure sound. How many people Lester influenced, how many lives!
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.
In the rarified precincts of the jazz pantheon, Lester Young is unique in that the true essence of his genius remains obscure. Armstrong, Monk, Tatum, Coltrane and the others recorded prolifically in the studio and out of it, etching a relatively complete picture of their abilities. To be sure, there were extraordinary moments that vanished the moment they were created, lingering only in the memories of those lucky enough to have witnessed them. But with Young, the overwhelming consensus of those who heard him where he was young is that he could and frequently did play extended solos, and that it was only in that form that he could express his unique and large range sense of musical architecture. So we are left to parse, ever so minutely, the shards of that vision as they are to be found on the recordings that comprise this collection. All jazz soloists up through the advent of long-playing records in the 50's had to learn to express themselves succinctly and no one did it any better than Young at his best.
Young came from a musical family led by the patriarch, William "Billy" Young, who played all the instruments and made a living first as a teacher and then as a touring bandleader. The family's story has been told in great detail in the three extant Young biographies (written by Frank Buchman-Moller, Douglas Daniels and Dave Gelly), all of which are well worth reading, as is The Lester Young Reader, Lewis Porter, ed. Although born at his mother's family home in Woodville, Mississippi on August 27, 1909, Young was raised in and around New Orleans, and was entranced by music from an early age. Rhythm was vital to his music and it comes as no surprise that he started on the drums before switching to the saxophone. After the trials and tribulations that came from a sensitive nature married to an indefatigable need to assert his musical prowess, the teenaged Lester Young emerged as a demon on the soprano, alto, and baritone saxophones. His relationship with his father was complicated. Billy Young knew early on how talented Lester was and always accepted him back in the fold after one of Lester's frequent escapes from the family. This did not lessen the threat of yet another whipping for some infraction or of a tour into the Deep South, which remained all the provocation Lester needed to run away yet again, and by his late teens he strove to establish a life away from the family. The majority of Young's biography through the Basie years is covered in the session notes that follow. One misconception that should be cleared up before delving into the music is that contrary to the legend, Lester Young was never really a Kansas City musician. It's true that he was playing there with Count Basie in 1936 when they got the call to come to New York, but he had spent the great majority of his time in the preceding years based in Minneapolis. Billy Young had established the family there in the late 20's and Lester found the atmosphere convivial enough to make it his home base. Lester married for the first time while there, and found frequent employment at The Cotton Club.