About this Recording
8.120764 - YOUNG, Lester: Lester Leaps Again (1942-1944)

‘Lester Leaps Again’ Original Recordings 1942-1944

Lester Young was a true individualist, in his tenor-saxophone playing, his lifestyle and his vocabulary. Among the words he reportedly introduced were bread (meaning money), cool (not pertaining to the temperature) and groovy. When Young was developing his playing style, the dominant voice on tenor was Coleman Hawkins. Hawkins had a large sound with a hard tone, and a style that was harmonically advanced, full of notes and powerful. Nearly every other tenor-saxophonist sounded like a close relative, except Young.

Born in Woodville, Mississippi on 27 August 1909, Lester Young grew up playing music in his father’s family band. He spent time playing trumpet, alto, violin and drums before settling on alto by 1920, around the time that his family had moved to Minnesota. In 1927 when he was eighteen he left the band because he did not want to travel in the South. While with Art Bronson’s Bostonians, Young switched permanently to the tenor-sax. After a few years of freelancing, he joined the Original Blue Devils in 1932, settled in Kansas City and worked locally with Bennie Moten, Clarence Love, King Oliver and Count Basie (1934). He was hired as the first replacement for the recently departed Coleman Hawkins with Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra. Unlike Hawkins, Young had a lighterthan- air tone, he tended to float over bar lines and he played one or two notes where other saxophonists might play ten. He was technically skilled and could read music easily, but his sound was considered so revolutionary that the other musicians felt that it did not fit in the Henderson big band; Young only lasted three months. He worked with Andy Kirk and Earl Hines before rejoining Basie in 1936.

Lester Young’s style was perfectly at home with the Count Basie Orchestra, contrasting with the more Hawkins-oriented sound of his fellow tenor Herschel Evans and inspiring Basie’s light but hard-swinging rhythm section. Young was a large part of Basie’s success when the band headed East later in 1936, and he was its key soloist for the next four years. Not only did he star on classic records with Basie but he was a co-star on many of Billie Holiday’s recordings where his cool-toned sound echoed hers. He dubbed her “Lady Day” and she in turn called him “Pres,” short for president.

In December 1940 Young left Basie’s band under mysterious circumstances, possibly because he did not want to record on Friday the 13th. Surprisingly Pres did not have a major solo career during the next few years, instead coleading a mostly undocumented group with his brother drummer Lee Young and working in Al Sears’ big band. Among the few recording dates he made during the period are four titles on 15 July 1942 in a trio with the up-and-coming Nat King Cole (who was better known at the time as a pianist than as a singer) and bassist Red Callender. A special aspect of these four explorations of standards is that, because the music was originally released on 12-inch rather than 10-inch 78s, the performances are longer than the usual three-minute limit, with Body And Soul exceeding five minutes. Young sounds relaxed on the two ballads (I Can’t Get Started and Body And Soul) while coming up with a constant flow of appealing ideas on the mediumtempo versions of Tea For Two and Indiana. And throughout, Nat Cole shows that he really was one of the top swing pianists of the era.

In October 1943, Lester Young rejoined the Count Basie Orchestra after being absent nearly three years. Because of the recording strike of 1942-44, he was not able to record with the full Basie band (other than one date in which Count was absent). But because he was signed to a different label than Basie and one that settled fairly early with the musicians union, by late- 1943 he was able to record as a leader. On 28 December 1943 Pres had one of his greatest record dates. Joined by a top-notch rhythm section comprised of pianist Johnny Guarnieri, bassist Slam Stewart and drummer Sid Catlett, Young is heard in peak form on Just You, Just Me, I Never Knew and his uptempo blues Afternoon Of a Basie-ite, playing with joy and constant creativity. Stewart’s bowed solos (to which he hums along an octave higher) are witty while Guarnieri, who could be a real musical chameleon, mostly sticks to Count Basie and Teddy Wilson in his solos. The classic of the date, Sometimes I’m Happy, is one of those rare performances where every note is perfect, whether it be Stewart’s charming solo or the way Young ends the performance with a quote from “My Sweetie Went Away.”

The other two sessions on this collection team Pres with key members of the Count Basie Orchestra in combos. The three spirited originals, After Theatre Jump, Six Cats And A Prince and an exuberant Destination K.C, have Young joined in the frontline by trumpeter Buck Clayton and trombonist Dickie Wells, two distinctive players who like Pres were part of Basie’s early successes. One can hear in Young’s solo on After Theatre Jump where Illinois Jacquet came from and, through Jacquet, a full generation of R&B tenors. Lester Leaps Again is particularly special for it features Young as the only horn, interacting at length with Basie and the classic rhythm section in a blues groove similar to One O’Clock Jump.

Forty days later, Young was back in the studio with the Basie rhythm section for four more numbers. Drummer Shadow Wilson had taken Jo Jones’ place when Jones was drafted but the magic is still there as the quintet performs two of Pres’ originals, Ghost Of A Chance and Indiana. A highpoint is Young’s lyrical Blue Lester although each of these selections has its memorable moments.

1944 looked as if it were turning out to be one of Lester Young’s greatest years, particularly after he was featured in the Academy Awardwinning film short Jammin’ The Blues. But the draft board caught up with him in October and the next year would be a horrible one for Young. The quiet noncomformist could not adjust to Army life or the institutionalized racism of the period and he spent part of the time in a military prison. When he was discharged in late-1945, Young returned to his earlier playing form but he was torn apart on the inside, both emotionally and mentally. Over time both depression and excessive drinking would ruin his health and, although there were many musical highpoints during the 1950s, Lester Young’s former zest for life was gone. After too little eating and too much drinking, he passed away on 15 March 1959 when he was only 49.

However some of Lester Young’s happiest moments on record are contained in this definitive collection, taken from a musical golden age when Young was truly the President of the tenor-sax.

Scott Yanow
Author of 8 jazz books including Jazz On Film, Swing, Bebop, Trumpet Kings and Jazz On Record 1917-76

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