Bebop and Beyond
by Armand Lewis
There are very few people in the world who can claim to be true originals. But, while everything builds on what came before, someone had to be the first. The first “cool” sound. The first to set the style of dress and speech that would come to define (and stereotype) an entire art form.
Tenor saxophonist Lester Young was that original. Before him (and only by a couple of years) there was Coleman Hawkins, who defined the sound of the tenor saxophone as big, deep and forceful. Young took a different approach; playing with a lighter, cool sound that floated above the other instruments in the band. He extended this individualistic approach to just about everything else in his life.
With his flat “porkpie” hat and sunglasses, he was different than anyone else on the scene. He even held the saxophone differently — holding it in an almost horizontal position, rather than the usual vertical pose. He also had his own type of speech reflecting an otherworldly attitude toward life that later came to be identified with jazz musicians, beatniks, and artistic types in general.
After taking up the drums as a small child, Young switched to saxophone to play in his father’s touring vaudeville/minstrel band. By his early teens, he was featured prominently in his father’s orchestra, which by then was playing mainstream dance music. By his twenties, Young was the star attraction in the territory bands of the era. These regional dance orchestras built the foundation of what would become the big band era in the late 1930s.
It was in Count Basie’s band that Young achieved national exposure. Basie employed some of the finest musicians from the territory bands of the early 1930’s. Though Young would spend just five years with the group, his tenor playing made the band and the band in turn made him a star. It was during this time that Billie Holiday nicknamed Young “Pres” — as in “President of the tenor saxophone.”
After being discharged from the Army in December 1945, Young began touring and recording with his own groups. Crisscrossing the country, Young was constantly making records, playing clubs and concerts as well as headlining with the famous “Jazz at the Philharmonic” troupe.
From this period comes Lester Young — Complete Live at the Argyle 1950 (Solar 4569968) featuring the tenor master along with Kenny Drew on piano, Jesse Drakes on trumpet, Joe Shulman on bass and Jo Jones on drums.
The set that night (April 2, 1950) consists mainly of jazz standards from the 1940s including “I Can’t Get Started,” “Body and Soul” and “How High The Moon” — all of which would also show up frequently in Jazz at the Philharmonic shows.
Pres and company are certainly right at home throughout the set with Jo Jones’ driving 4/4 beat on the up-tempo numbers and subtle understated brushwork on the ballads and slow blues such as “Big Blue Eyes” as well as “Body and Soul”.
Though not really known outside of his work with Young during the post war years, trumpeter Jesse Drakes turns in some very effective solos.
The Jazz at the Philharmonic vibe is much in evidence on several tracks including “Up N Adam,” “How High the Moon” (which seems to have been the theme song for JATP) and Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump”
Although he would not live to see acknowledgement of his influence on popular music and culture, Young was keenly aware of how much he had contributed and how much the next generation of tenor players had absorbed from him. “Complete Live at the Argyle 1950” shows just why Lester Young will always remain the “Pres” of the tenor saxophone.
Armand Lewis buys and sells rare Jazz LPs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org