Lester Young (1909-1959) was a quirky and likable character who held an influential position in the evolution of jazz. With his tenor sax – usually held at an extremely odd angle, up in the air and horizontally splayed out to the side – he literally played the instrument like no one had ever done before and was irritatingly impossible to copy. He also dressed the part of an eccentric and distinguished himself by wearing long overcoats and a pork pie hat …
Part of Lester’s genius was an uncanny ability to achieve a tone that was as weightless as meringue – he almost alluded to the notes in a chord rather than simply playing them. As a result his delivery was sometimes understated and intuitive – other times slow and seductive – making him the perfect musical partner for Billie Holiday with whom he achieved great success; in fact, Young’s sax and Holiday’s vocals are so in sync on many of their recordings, that listeners often have to strain in order to hear the distinction between them. They were also extremely good friends outside of their musical association and this must have contributed to their close bond.
One of Lester Young’s other talents was a clever way with words. He developed his own slang code for dozens of nouns and phrases and restricted their meaning to his own inner circle. For example, if he felt there might be trouble brewing he would comment that he was sure that he had “felt a draft.” Cute girls were “pound cake” and of course most famously he gave Billie Holiday the nickname which she would always be associated with: Lady Day. She in turn called him “Prez” as in “President” and the ongoing in joke seemed to be that they were part of a nouveau ‘Royal Family.’
Young played with the sax section of the “Blue Devils” in the early thirties and enjoyed moderate success till the Depression hit. Much has already been made of the musical “duel” that took place one night between Coleman Hawkins and the then 24 year old Lester Young. But when Young was ultimately hired to replace Hawkins in Fletcher Henderson’s band he refused to compromise his own original style. Young found it neither pleasing nor necessary to replicate Hawkins’ playing style and simply was unwilling to do so.
Working with the Count Basie band and the duets with Billie Holiday would follow and these are the achievements that he is chiefly associated with.
Tragically, Young and Holiday would both die within months of one another from addiction-related illnesses.