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Lester Young: Boston 1950

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In 1950, if you headed away from Boston's Symphony Hall on Massachusetts Ave. toward the South End, you'd encounter an archipelago of jazz clubs. Establishments included the Savoy Ballroom, the Chicken Lane, the Wig-Wam and many others that welcomed black and white audiences eager for music and a bite to eat.

One of the best known Boston clubs before George Wein opened Storyville in 1954 was the Hi-Hat. Located where Columbus Ave. meets Massachusetts Ave., the Hi-Hat served barbecue and often hosted radio remotes featuring the performances of famed jazz artists. [Pictured above: A post card of Boston's Hi-Hat Club, which opened in 1937 and burned down in 1959]

One of those remotes was recorded between May 26 and June 11, 1950 and featured tenor saxophonist Lester Young and his band—Jesse Drakes (tp), Kenny Drew (p), Joe Shulman (b) and Connie Kay (d). The recording is now available for the first time on Lester Young: Boston 1950 (Uptown).

What's remarkable about this CD is the crisp, warm quality of the sound, the firm fluidity of Young's playing and Drew's melodic piano playing. Young was in superb form in mid-1950, having spent much of the first quarter of the year on the road playing nightly. He had a run at the Savoy Ballroom in New York in February followed in March by a stay at the city's Royal Roost. Then he was in Chicago in April before winding up in Boston.

The track selection on this CD is superb and includes sterling versions of How High the Moon, Talk of the Town, Slow Boat to China and Body and Soul—a ballad he was rarely recorded playing. The song all but belonged to rival saxophonist Coleman Hawkins—whose 1939 recording for RCA was legendary. For this reason alone it's fascinating to hear Young's approach, which is far less aggressive and much more sorrowful.

In 1950, jazz was experiencing a brief lull. Bebop's popularity was fading, cool jazz was gaining favor and hard bop was still two years away. Record sales were down as Columbia's and RCA's new formats—the 33 1/3 LP and the 45-rpm, respectively—battled for supremacy. The result was a confused marketplace as consumer decided to stick with what they owned rather than invest in new phonographs. As jazz and technology caught their breath, Young demonstrated once again that expressing your feelings through your instrument while improvising was high art and eternal.

Yesterday, of course, was Lester Young's birthday. Happy birthday Prez!

JazzWax tracks: You'll find Lester Young: Boston 1950 (Uptown) here.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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