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This Week On Riverwalk Jazz: Lester Leaps In

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The Jim Cullum Jazz Band This week on Riverwalk Jazz, Vernel Bagneris and Topsy Chapman paint a picture of Lester Young
Lester Young
Lester Young
1909 - 1959
saxophone
’s life based on his own first-person accounts and those of musicians who knew him. The Jim Cullum Jazz Band, with tenor saxophonists Brian Ogilvie and Ken Peplowski
Ken Peplowski
Ken Peplowski
b.1959
clarinet
offer their homage to the President of Tenor Sax.

The program is distributed in the US by Public Radio International, on Sirius/XM satellite radio and can be streamed on-demand from the Riverwalk Jazz website. You can also drop in on a continuous stream of shows at the Stanford Archive of Recorded Sound.

Lester Young is remembered as one of the jazz world’s favorite Bohemians, but the originality of his tenor saxophone playing by far eclipsed his persona as a hipster.

He had definite ideas about his approach to jazz. He explained it this way. “Well, to my mind, the way I play, I try not to be a ‘repeater pencil,’ ya dig? I’m always reaching. Originality’s the thing. You can have tone, and technique, and a lot of other things, but without originality, you ain’t really nowhere.”

The C Melody saxophone—rarely heard today—was very popular in the 1920s. The acknowledged master of that instrument was Frankie Trumbauer
Frankie Trumbauer
Frankie Trumbauer
1901 - 1956
saxophone
. Lester Young talked about the influence that Trumbauer’s playing had on his own sound on the tenor.

“Did you ever hear Frankie Trumbauer play “Singin’ the Blues”? Heard that, and it tricked me—that’s where I went. Trumbauer was always telling a little story like I liked to hear. He played the C Melody saxophone. So I tried to get that C Melody sound out of my tenor. That’s why I don’t sound like other people.”

After several years of touring with his abusive father’s family band, Lester went out on his own. He was pulled into the orbit of the Blue Devils, the legendary Southwestern ‘territory’ band that settled in Kansas City and evolved into Bennie Moten
Bennie Moten
Bennie Moten
1894 - 1935
composer/conductor
’s and then Count Basie
Count Basie
Count Basie
1904 - 1984
piano
’s first band.

Young joined Count Basie in Kansas City in February 1936, and by the following fall they were in the recording studio. Lester had never made any recordings, though he’d been a working musician for sixteen years. The records Young made with Basie—and later with Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday
1915 - 1959
vocalist
—are now widely regarded as essential documents of 20th century music. An entire generation of saxophonists followed in his stylistic footsteps, among them Al Cohn
Al Cohn
Al Cohn
1925 - 1988
sax, tenor
, Zoot Sims
Zoot Sims
Zoot Sims
1925 - 1985
sax, tenor
, Stan Getz
Stan Getz
Stan Getz
1927 - 1991
sax, tenor
, Gerry Mulligan
Gerry Mulligan
Gerry Mulligan
1927 - 1996
sax, baritone
and Paul Desmond
Paul Desmond
Paul Desmond
1924 - 1977
sax, alto
, to name a few. There's a clear influence of Lester Young’s musical concept to be heard in the early playing of Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
.

Billie Holiday and Lester Young were soul mates in their approach to life and music, though their relationship, by many accounts, was platonic. It was Billie who gave him his famous nickname, “Prez.”

“The greatest man around in those days was Franklin D. Roosevelt, so I started calling Lester ‘The President.’ He called me ‘Lady’ and my mother was ‘Duchess.’ We were The Royal Family of Harlem."


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