Born Lester Willis Young, August 27, 1909, in Woodville, MS; died March 14, 1959, in New York, NY; son of Willis Handy (a bandleader) and Lizetta; married first wife, Beatrice (marriage ended); lived with common law spouse, Mary, 1937-46; married second wife, also named Mary, 1948; children: Lester, Jr., Yvette. Military/Wartime Service: U.S. Army, 1944-45.

Saxophonist Lester Young had one of the memorable styles in twentieth-century jazz. Prez, or the President, as Young was nicknamed by singer Billie Holiday, played a spare and cerebral saxophone, though often a melancholy one. His tenor sax technique counterbalanced his peer Coleman Hawkins's lush, heavily ornamented tone. In his book The Reluctant Art: The Growth of Jazz, Benny Green described the difference between the two artists: "Where Hawkins is profuse, Lester is pithy; where Hawkins is passionate, Lester is reflective."

Young's presence on the bandstand, with his horn up and out at a 45 degree angle, was striking. Six feet tall with green eyes and reddish hair, Young was the archetypal hipster, wearing flashy double-breasted suits and pork-pie hats. His phrases, both in words and music, became legendary among other musicians. With the Count Basie Orchestra in the 1930s, Young defined the ideal for solo improvisations. In the 1950s he associated with the bebop innovators, such as alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, but he remained singular, a bridge between the hot jazz and the cool. Critic John Hammond, writing for Down Beat magazine in 1937, called Young "without a doubt the greatest tenor player in the country ... the most original and inventive saxophonist I have ever heard."

Born on August 27, 1909, in Woodville, Mississippi, Young soon moved to Algiers, across the river from New Orleans. His mother was a Creole who taught school; Young's father, Willis Handy, whom Young hardly knew, was an itinerant musician. Young grew up during the period in New Orleans when King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and Sidney Bechet were creating jazz. Young remembered chasing after wagons loaded with players and distributing the musicians' handbills to the gathering crowds. Other jobs included shining shoes and delivering newspapers. When he turned ten, Young's existence drastically changed. His father returned and his parents divorced. Lester and his siblings, Irma and Lee, went with their father on the road, moving to Memphis, Tennessee, then to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Everyone in the family was a member of Willis Handy's band; Lester played drums and, later, alto saxophone.

Willis Handy was a stern taskmaster who demanded that his children learn to read music and who punished missteps. As a teenager, Lester evidenced a whimsical nature that often brought him into conflict with his father. Young split with his family as they were embarking on a tour through Texas and New Mexico in 1927. He then joined a succession of other bands. In 1928, while traveling with Art Bronson's Bostonians, Young made the tenor sax his primary instrument, apparently because the band's tenor player was too slow dressing for performances. Young also preferred the larger sax's deeper tone, although the alto more commonly got the solo part.

The Bostonians folded in September of 1930, and Young joined Walter Page's Blue Devils. An unpaid hotel bill in Beckley, West Virginia, left Young and the other musicians stranded and their equipment confiscated. Young managed to get back to Minneapolis, where he played at the Nest Club, and then moved to jazz capital Kansas City. William Basie, who became known as "Count," played in Kansas City, as did Mary Lou Williams, Ben Webster, and, later, Charlie Parker. Young met Bennie Moten through mutual friend and saxophonist Herschel Evans. With Moten's group, Young slipped easily into the "Kaycee" jazz style, which emphasized the second and fourth beats, as in the blues, and displayed short riffs repeated in different variations. The saxophonist became known for quiet bursts of invention that stunned listeners with their succinct power.

Young dueled Coleman Hawkins of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in a marathon "jam" session in 1933, an event that cemented his growing reputation. He joined Count Basie in 1934 and worked with him on and off for the next six years. During this period, he made his first recordings in Chicago, including Lady Be Good. By 1938 Young was celebrated enough to perform with Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall, and he joined Count Basie at the Famous Door and the Southland Cafe. Leaving Basie in December of 1940, Young went to Los Angeles to play with his brother Lee. World War II was looming, but Young was not interested in becoming a soldier. Eventually, a Federal Bureau of Investigations agent served induction notices on Jo Jones, the drummer, and Young at the Plantation Hotel in Los Angeles.

Young's experience in the army was a disaster. Shortly after his entrance, he was arrested for drug possession: barbiturates that he had received for an obstacle course injury and marijuana. Young did not use hard drugs but smoked marijuana and drank alcohol more and more heavily throughout his life. He was sentenced to a year's imprisonment at Fort Gordon, Georgia, and was dishonorably discharged on December 1, 1945.

Opinions are mixed on whether Young was effective as a saxophonist after the war. Some critics thought that he became less creative and more eccentric. His popularity, however, increased steadily in the late 1940s, until he was making as much as $50,000 a year. His idiosyncrasies while performing became more pronounced. He would approach the bandstand in tiny baby steps and referred to everyone by the names "Prez" or "Lady." He reportedly became paranoid, feeling as if no one liked him, and apparently resented his own success, which made his most original solos standard fare. Young played at the opening of Charlie Parker's Birdland in 1949 and toured Europe with Birdland groups and with Count Basie. In 1956 he was voted greatest tenor saxophonist ever by his fellow jazz musicians in a Leonard Feather poll.

Young was hospitalized several times in the 1950s for medical problems related to his drinking. By February of 1958 he had recovered enough to attempt recording again, but the results were weak. In the spring, he moved out of his house and into the Alvin Hotel on 52nd Street in New York City, across from Birdland. A woman named Elaine Swain nursed him there, and he gradually regained strength. He soon made an appearance with Jack Teagarden at the Newport Jazz Festival and arranged for new promotional materials. As a sign of his recovery, he made an engagement to play the Blue Note Club in Paris, France. The run proved to be his last--he started drinking again and was forced to return to New York. Young died at his hotel on March 15, 1959.

Many saxophone players have credited Young as their inspiration. Young noted that his style was much like Billie Holiday's singing. In Holiday's autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, Young is quoted as saying that he would listen to records of Holiday in duets with himself, and they would "sound like two of the same voices, if you don't be careful, you know--or the same mind or something like that." His personal and musical imagination are embedded in the textures of modern jazz.

by Paul E. Anderson

Lester Young's Career

Played with family band, 1919-27; toured with Art Bronson's Bostonians and other bands, 1928-34; joined Count Basie Orchestra, then groups led by Fletcher Henderson and Andy Kirk; tenor saxophonist for Count Basie, 1936-40; played with brother Lee in Los Angeles, 1941; guest soloist for bands in New York City, 1941-44; recorded Jumpin' With Symphony Sid, 1947; performed at Charlie Parker's Birdland club, 1949 and 1951-54; toured United States and Europe 1952-57.

Lester Young's Awards

Named greatest tenor saxophonist ever, Leonard Feather poll, 1956; elected posthumously to Down Beat Hall of Fame, 1959.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

September 30, 2004: Young was inducted into the inaugural class of Lincoln Center's Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame. Source: "Jazz At Lincoln Center To Induct Inaugural Class of Musicians into The Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame" (Press Release), September 30, 2004.

Further Reading

Books

Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 8 years ago

Lester is remarkable in that you may not listen to him for a spell, and when you hear him again it is the magic of the most marvelous music and, once again, your lips turn upward and your eyes raise in awe. This is a man who was as much a prolific poet as a master musician, a genuine genius and one of the most fascinating beings with whom I've ever spoken. Prez is my inspiration whenever I play, no matter that I could never be as great as he.