In the jazz world we have had a Duke, a Count, and a King, but there is only one artist who was given the moniker of president, often shortened to “Pres” or “The Prez.” That man was clarinet and tenor saxophone player Lester Young.
Jazz vocal legend Billie Holiday, who Lester Young dubbed “Lady Day,” was quoted about him and the source of his nickname:
“In this country kings or dukes don’t amount to nothing. The greatest man around then was Franklin D. Roosevelt, and he was the president; so I started calling Lester the President. It got shortened to Pres.”
Black Music Sunday is a weekly series highlighting all things Black music. With over 145 stories (and counting) covering performers, genres, history, and more, each featuring its own vibrant soundtrack. I hope you’ll find some familiar tunes and perhaps an introduction to something new.
Jazz scholar Mike Zirpolo’s blog Swing and Beyond is an introduction to Prez, and to his first breakthrough recording, “Lady Be Good.”
”Lady, Be Good” (1936) Lester Young and Count Basie
Lester Willis Young, one of the most influential musicians in the history of jazz, was born on August 27, 1909, in Woodville, Mississippi. After a lengthy apprenticeship spent in numerous black territory bands in the Midwest, Young learned to read music at sight, achieved complete control of the instruments he played (which by then were tenor sax and clarinet), and developed some extraordinarily original jazz ideas. By the early 1930s, he had grown to six feet one. His height and the combination of his light skin, penetrating green eyes, and tiny feet (size seven), made him a striking individual. He also had begun to accumulate a number of personal eccentricities that only heightened his individuality. His dress, manner of speech, and humor were exceedingly different, even in the somewhat unorthodox world of dance band musicians. But it was in his music that Lester Young was most individual.
His professional activity in the early 1930s was continuous, though hardly high profile. The low point (despite the high hopes of everyone concerned), came when he was hired by Fletcher Henderson in the spring of 1934, replacing Coleman Hawkins, whose stentorian tenor saxophone stylings had been a prominent feature of Henderson’s band for years. Young’s entire approach to the tenor saxophone was antithetical to Hawkins’s. It appears that Henderson and his band were not prepared for this huge change, consequently, Young’s employment with Henderson was short lived and exasperating. (Lester requested a letter from Henderson stating that he had not been fired for musical inadequacy, which Henderson gladly provided to him. Young’s playing simply didn’t fit into the Henderson band’s style.)
Incredibly, even though Young had been a professional musician since approximately 1923, he did not make his first record until the autumn of 1936. His playing on the recording of “Lady Be Good” (ARC/Vocalion on November 9, 1936), with a small group of musicians from Count Basie’s earliest band, can only be described as astonishing. Young’s approach to jazz, which in my view was an extension in many ways (principally rhythmic) of what Bix Beiderbecke had started, was the first full-scale alternative to the approach developed by Louis Armstrong. His tenor saxophone sound was also quite different from that used by all others then.
Give a listen to “Lady Be Good.”
The other recording from that session that guaranteed a shift in tenor sax history was “Shoeshine Boy.” Alan Goodman at Mosaic Records describes this recording as “A set whose contents rank among the most influential recordings in history.”
It was an era when the music was in transition; a time when musicians were achieving new milestones of personal expression; a point in his career when Count Basie, with Lester Young and others beside him, was establishing his credentials as one of the leading band leaders of the swing era; and the moment when Lester Young was creating a completely new approach to the tenor saxophone. Without reservation, we can assure you these are masterpieces.
Young was fully capable of achieving a section sound on ensemble pieces, but as a soloist he chose to stand apart from his fellow musicians. It was a stance that helped make him hard to cut. His solos introduced concepts that were revolutionary for their melodic content, their rhythmic complexities, and the very way he articulated the notes, often creating sounds no one had heard before.
I find it distressing that there aren’t multiple accessible documentaries on Young’s life, body of work, and impact on jazz. There is one that was made in 1988 by Bruce Fredericksen entitled Song of the Spirit.
Rare film of Prez, along with on-camera interviews with the likes of Bobby Scott, Jo Jones, John Hammond, John Lewis, Buster Smith, Dizzy Gillespie, Connie Kay, friends and relatives, bring the elusive legend of Prez to life
I found it chopped into six segments on YouTube. The audio and video aren’t very good; however, I encourage you to watch the entire film because it is very thorough, and musicians who worked with him and his daughter Beverly Young provide valuable insights on his life and music.
Song of the Spirit
There is another documentary about Pres that has been in the works for quite some time. Filmmaker Henry Ferrini is piecing it together and fundraising as he goes along. Here’s a preview trailer:
President of Beauty: The Life and Times of Lester Young
There is no shortage of excellent biographies, and one of those biographers is Dr. Douglas Daniels, author of “Lester Leaps In: The Life and Times of Lester Pres Young.”
He was jazz's first hipster. He performed in sunglasses and coined and popularized phrases like "that's cool" and "you dig?" He always wore a suit and his trademark porkpie hat. He influenced everyone from B. B. King to Stan Getz to Allen Ginsberg, creating a lyrical style of playing that forever changed the sound of the tenor saxophone.
In this groundbreaking biography of Lester Young (1909-1959), historian Douglas Daniels brings to life the man and his world, and corrects a number of misconceptions. Even though others have identified Young as a Kansas City musician, Daniels traces his roots to the blues of Louisiana and his early years traveling with his father's band and the legendary Oklahoma City Blue Devils. Later we see the jazz culture of New York in the early 1940s, when Young was launched to national and international fame with the Count Basie Orchestra and began to accompany his close friend Billie Holiday. After a year spent in an Army prison on a conviction for marijuana use, Young made changes in his music but never lost his sensitivity or soul.
Daniels’ informative 2008 one-hour lecture is well worth listening to.
Biographer Douglas Daniels discusses his groundbreaking biography of Lester Young, the legendary tenor saxophonist whose career spanned swing and bebop eras.
Much ado has been made over the years about the relationship between Young and Billie Holiday. James Maycock explored it in this story for The Guardian.
Billie Holiday and Lester Young: the intimate friendship between Lady Day and Prez
The intensely intimate but totally platonic relationship that developed between Young and Holiday from 1934 was publicly recognised during their lifetime. Aishah Rahman’s musical Lucky Day also focused on the personal and musical affinity that existed between the two. And just last year, the Afro-American poet Kamau Daaoud recorded Balm of Gilead (for Billie Holiday and Lester Young) for his album Leimert Park.
Today Daaoud explains that “their friendship arose from this common understanding of the nature of the world that they lived, and the nature of the pain they had to struggle through to do what they had to do”. Indeed, their slow physical and mental disintegration from the mid-1940s onwards was uncannily similar as they wrestled with their respective addictions, racist abuse and their unique character traits.
Here’s Daaoud’s poem:
Balm of Giliad
she graced him with the title of Prez
he crowned her Lady Day
they stand together on the stage
these cousins of sorts and songs...
Give Prez and Holiday a round of applause for this version of “All of Me,” which is a track that wasn’t released because it was too long to fit on a 78 record!
Lady Day - Vocals. Shad Collins - Trumpet. Eddie Barefield - Clarinet. Les Johnakins - Alto Sax. Prez - Tenor Sax. Eddie Heywood - Piano. John Collins - Guitar. Ted Sturges - Bass. Kenny Clarke - Drums. Recorded New York, 21st March 1941
Two years before both Young and Holiday would join the ancestors, they did a television gig together.
The photo above was taken at a television recording session for the 1957 CBS show The Sound of Jazz. I’ve queued up the video to their performance. The amazing interaction between Holiday and each soloist shouldn’t be missed.
One of the most compelling performances that Prez was a part of was in the 1944 short film Jammin’ the Blues.
Videodrome :: Jammin’ The Blues (1944)
Produced underneath the guidance of Verve Records founder, Norman Granz, Jammin’ The Blues was released on May 5th, 1944. Granz’s objective was to showcase the top jazz musicians of the day and shed light on the shifting musicality of the genre, which had begun transitioning away from the populous swing arrangements of big bands in favor of smaller groups experimenting with rhythm & blues and free form improvisations. During the forties, a new generation of musicians would usher in bebop jazz, which would spiderweb into hard-bop, post-bop, and cool jazz. These musical modulations would produce some of the most notable records, musicians, and sub-categories of the genre. Jammin’ The Blues was shot amidst these seismic changes, a historic time capsule of American jazz during its most prolific era.
It’s no surprise that the short film was directed by a photographer, Gjon Mili (most notable for his 1943 LIFE cover story on Lindy Hop), as Jammin’ The Blues is shot as though it’s a series of photographs in motion. Any frame from the ten-minute-long film could be isolated into a still image that would be as graphic as the one that preceded or proceed it. Coupled with the audio, which showcases jazz legends such as Lester Young, Red Callendar, Marlowe Morris, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Sid Catlett, Jo Jones, Barney Kessel, John Simmons, Illinois Jacquet, and Marie Bryant playing “Midnight Symphony,” “Sunny Side Of The Street,” and the title track, “Jammin’ The Blues,” it feels more like a proto music video than a short film. Shrouded in deep shadows and lingering cigarette smoke, Jammin’ The Blues captures the intangible coolness of midcentury jazz on both a sonic and aesthetic level, forever timeless and resolutely hip.
I can’t stop watching this.
Buck Clayton, Harry Edison, Illinois Jacquet, Marlowe Morris, Garland Finney, John Simmons, Sidney Catlett, Jo Jones, Red Callender and Marie Bryant in 1944
Excuse me, dear readers, for a slight digression. The featured singer in the film short is Marie Bryant, who you may not be familiar with.
A short documentary on Marie Bryant, one of the most popular Black exotic dancers of the late 1930s and early 1940s. She made her film debut in "The Duke is Tops" in 1938 after touring with Duke Ellington and others. She landed small roles in several films and also taught dance for movie studios and at various schools including Katherine Dunham’s Dance School where she met and had become best friends with Lena Horne. Over the years her students included Marlon Brando, Debbie Reynolds, Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, Vera-Ellen, Cyd Charisse, Ava Gardener, and Mitzi Gaynor. She also worked with Fred Astaire’s choreographer, Hermes Pan and served as an assistant to Jack Cole.
I could sit here all day posting my Prez favorites, and I’m sure you will have yours ready to go in the comments section, so here’s a full album of the President with the great Oscar Peterson for you to enjoy.
RELATED STORY: They tickled the ivories and made jazz history: Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson
I’ll close today’s story with a tribute written by Charlie Mingus for Prez.
Christopher Law at Culturedarm gives the background:
Behind the Song: Charles Mingus – “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”
Charles Mingus wrote ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ as an elegy for the pioneering jazz saxophonist Lester Young, who died in March 1959, two months prior to the recording sessions for what would become Mingus Ah Um. A darkly elegant ballad with a lone dissonant note full of pathos and pain, it contrasts sharply with the exuberant gospel of ‘Better Git It In Your Soul’, the track which opens the album.
Beyond music and language, in fashion too Lester Young stood apart. He was especially fond of double-breasted pinstripe suits and – while next-generation jazzmen like Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk preferred the beret – stuck resolutely to the pork pie hat, which had originated around the 1830s as headwear for women with feathers and a curled brim, before Buster Keaton popularised the item for men in a version cut short and made stiff.
Following Keaton’s success with the pork pie hat in the silent comedies of the 1920s, it regained its curled brim and some of its height and had its heyday following the Great Depression. The architect Frank Lloyd Wright wore a pork pie with an especially wide brim, curved and floppy. Then by the early 1940s the hat had become a common accessory for the zoot suit, worn by Black Americans, Filipino Americans, Italian Americans, and Mexicans, featuring a long draped jacket with padded shoulders accompanied by high-waisted, wide-legged trousers with pegged cuffs. The Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 saw mostly Mexican youths attacked in Los Angeles by American servicemen, whose accusations of unpatriotic thuggery barely masked their prevailing racism.
The pork-pie hat would become Lester Young’s sartorial signature.
Happy Pres Day!
Join me in the comments below for more of our very own jazz “Prezident’s Day” celebration.