Four Videos: Happy Prez Day


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Today is President's Day in the U.S. On this day at JazzWax, we celebrate Lester Young. Billie Holiday called him the President, which was shortened to Pres or Prez. She meant president of the tenor saxophone. If you know nothing about Young but would love to know why he's such a big deal, here it is in a nutshell:

Up until Young's solos in the Basie band in 1939 and '40 and more specifically his Aladdin small group leadership sides in the mid-1940s, the tenor saxophone was a gruff instrument that stood out by ferociously working up and down a song's chords with an assertive growl. Practitioners of this style included Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Ventura, Ben Webster, Budd Johnson, Arnett Cobb, Buddy Tate, Don Byas, Georgie Auld, Illinois Jacquet, Flip Phillips, Eddie “Lockjaw" Davis and others.

Young, by contrast, had a decidedly cooler approach to the instrument, and his drier approach influenced a generation of players, including Stan Getz, Lucky Thompson, Brew Moore, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Jimmy Giuffre, Bob Cooper, Bill Perkins, Dave Pell, Bill Holman and many others.

The way Marlon Brando changed acting, Mies van der Rohe changed architecture, Mark Rothko changed painting, Normal Mailer changed the novel, Frank O'Hara changed poetry and Helen Levitt changed photography, Young brought a new detachment to the tenor saxophone that favored space and forward velocity rather than tight rendering. His playing was the sound of a new emotionalism.

Here are four videos of Young. Happy Prez Day!

Here's Lester Young in 1944 in Jamin' the Blues (keep an eye on that porkpie hat)...

Here's Young in 1950...

Here's Young in 1957 on CBS's The Sound of Jazz in 1957 with Billie Holiday on Fine and Mellow (watch the rapport between Holiday and Young). The first saxophone solo is by Coleman Hawkins. The second is by Young, providing a perfect illustration of the differences between the two schools...

And here's Young in 1958 at Art Ford's Jazz Party...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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