September 6, 2018

Lester Young — The Complete President

Lester Young

PAST GENERATIONS OF Americans were fond of giving nicknames to their friends and peers. From “Honest Abe” Lincoln, to Julius “Groucho” Marx, nicknames were used to celebrate someone by highlighting a personal attribute, profession or other characteristic unique to that person.

Jazz had a rich history of nicknames­ — from Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong to Edward Duke” Ellington to Charlie “Yardbird” Parker. It was tenor saxophonist Lester Young who gave Billie Holiday her nickname “Lady Day.” Holiday quickly responded by calling Young “Pres” as in “President of the Tenor Saxophone.”

As influential on the tenor as Charlie Parker would become on alto, Lester Young’s impact can be heard most strongly in the tenor sounds of Stan Getz, Paul Quinichette and Brew Moore.

It was in Count Basie’s band, in the early 1930s, that Young achieved national exposure. Though Young would spend just five years with Basie, his tenor playing made the band and the band in turn made him a star.

After being discharged from the Army in December 1945, Young began touring and recording with his own groups. The post-war period also saw the beginnings of Young’s association with producer Norman Granz, who would produce basically all of Young’s recordings from 1950 through Pres’ premature death in 1959. These sessions, recorded for Granz’ labels Clef, Norgran and later Verve, have been collected together in the eight CD set Lester Young – The Complete Studio Sessions on Verve” (Verve 8362754 )

Covering over a dozen original LPs, the set includes such landmark albums as Lester Young / Buddy Rich Trio, The President Plays with the Oscar Peterson Trio, Pres and Teddy featuring Teddy Wilson, and the jam session classic Jazz Giants ‘56 which re-united Young with members of the Count Basie band.

Other masters either partnered with or supporting Young include trumpeters Harry “Sweets” Edison, Roy Eldridge, bassist Ray Brown, and pianists Nat “King” Cole” and Gildo Mahones.

All the music in this set is first-rate (as tenor saxophonist Brew Moore would later state “anybody who doesn’t play like Lester Young is wrong!”) though the standout sessions are the trio with Nat Cole and Buddy Rich, and the quartet sessions with Oscar Peterson or Teddy Wilson.

Though he would not live to see his influence on popular music and culture acknowledged, Young would be keenly aware of how much he had contributed and how much the next generation of tenor players had absorbed
from him.

The Complete Studio Sessions on Verve shows 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


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