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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. 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’s and then Count Basie’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—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, Zoot Sims, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan and Paul Desmond, 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.
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."