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  Lester Young Tonight At Noon - by Lawson Primm

Lester Young


New York City
October, 1952
2:11 am.

Eavesdropping in on an imaginary conversation between Lester Young and an acquaintance at the bar, at Mintons, between the second and third sets:

"Scuse, that Bing Crosby over there, who's he hip to in here man?" Pres, I think it must be Sammy, he must be carryin. "Shit, he's always takin a dip Sonny. You know, Hank was layin out on Lady Moonbeams and I saw Sammy out there, his arm around a poundcake. She was more interested in Oxford gray next to him I think. Two long and I look up again and she was slappin Sammy and I guess that's when Bing took notice. Shit there was fuzz all over the place. Bing should give a reading to him. Thank God I never even auditioned. Dig ? Sammy's just an old needle dancer I guess. Always looking for bells, always finds a way to be bruised. Sonny, I've got to check out. Third set about to begin."

Lester Young created a coded language all his own. You had to listen carefully to understand and he spoke softly. Yeah I'm talkin about his tenor playing and his conversation and diction. ( Pianist Jimmy Rowles said "it was like memorizing a dictionary, and I think it took me about three months.") He was original on all counts and he was a major player, (albeit a man in decline) in the golden age of jazz, The Fifties.

Soprano saxophonist and composer Steve Lacy described the era in an interview conducted by Atlantic Records staff photographer Lee Friedlander in 1997. "The 50's were the Golden age of Jazz because all of the giants were alive. Its wild, but in the 50's, 85% of the history of jazz were live, hard playing musicians. The giant giants Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker were playing their unique and most inventive music at the same time. Tenor players Don Byas, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Bud Johnson, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Sonny Rollins, Zoot Sims, John Coltrane, Illinois Jacquet, Stan Getz, Yusef Lateef Roland Kirk, Lester Young and others were all blowing, none alike. A matching, heroic list could be made for all players of all the instruments, and of course the singers. An amazing time, the fifties."

Young in many ways, epitomized the roller coaster ride jazz took during the decade. He had come fully into his own as a stylist after woodshedding in the thirties and forties with the Basie band and Nat king Cole. His influences were pedestrian white players Frank Trumbauer and the altoist Jimmy Dorsey, and not the widely followed tenor giant Coleman Hawkins. He developed his unique, smooth sound, mesmerizing listeners as he held his saxophone at an eye catching 45-degree angle. He recorded 17 sessions on Verve and played with the greats in trios, quartets, and quintets; Harry "Sweets " Edison, Oscar Peterson, Hank Jones, Jo Jones, Ray Brown, Buddy Rich, Nat Cole, Count Basie and others. But from 1944 on, after a dishonorable discharge from The U.S. Army for marijuana and barbiturates, his personal life began to decline sharply. And he died in 1959, a broken down man whose passing was scarcely noticed by the world at large. But, he was an irreplaceable talent and jazz musicians and fans knew the world had lost one of the giants, the likes of which we would never see again. He left a treasure trove of recordings, and the uneven records that he cut for Norman Granz's Verve Records from 1946-1959 are among the most interesting of his career.

You can discover the" Prez" on a few key reissues from Verve Records that appeared at the close of the 20th century. These include a mid-priced cd from Verve's terrific "Ultimate" series featuring selections and annotation by Wayne Shorter , "Lester Young with the Oscar Peterson Trio" a smartly packaged reissue from Verve's Master Edition series (featuring definitive versions of "Just You, Just Me" and "Tea For Two") and the fascinating , "The Complete Lester Young Studio Sessions on Verve", a lavish 8 disk set.

He played all of the great tunes and it was said that his favorite was "Sunday" from the "Going for Myself" LP released in 1958. In his stirring introductory liner notes to " The Complete Lester Young " set, the late trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison said that "Sunday" was his favorite "because the changes flowed so smoothly throughout the tune. He really loved to play that tune. I could tell by his body movement and his facial expression as he recorded and played it.

Lester Young was in essence a consummate musician who influenced countless players that followed, most notably, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Wayne Shorter.

The last words here are fittingly reserved for "Sweets" Edison. " He was ready to play anything at any time. Lester was a scratch improviser: His mind and fingers coordinated together and he was able to play anything he wanted on any tune. Everything he did was a masterpiece. Lester "Prez" Young,- a virtuoso, a stylist, and legend. No reputable collection of great jazz artists would be complete without Lester Young. He was one of the all-time great originators of jazz."
   

 

 

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