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Hail to the Pres

Today is the 100th birthday of Lester Young, dubbed “Pres” by Billie Holiday (whom he named “Lady Day”).  Here’s a bit of Fine and Mellow, a short, sweet video of the two of them in 1957.  Both of them died in 1959, within four months of each other, he at age 49, she at 44.



“His improvisations flowed with a melodic grace that was almost other-worldly; his music was delicate and vulnerable, but never fragile,” Neil Tesser has written.  “There was something timeless about the milky tone, the fantasy-world phrasing he applied to the simplest of thematic materials, raising them to other realms that he seemed at once beyond and yet innately bound to the human experience.”  

Tesser calls him “the prophet of cool.”  In fact, scholars contend it was Lester Young who gave the modern, hipster meaning to the word “cool.”

Gentle, solemn, humorous, intensely private, he had his own way of talking, his own word or phrase for almost everything.  It took a sideman joining the band some time to learn the lingo.  Drummer Connie Kay says when he joined Young’s band “I didn’t understand his language, but after a while I used to talk it.”  When he left Young to join the Modern Jazz Quartet, his new bandmates couldn’t understand him — except John Lewis, who had also played with Pres.

“You dig?”  That’s Pres talk.  “I’ve got eyes,” that’s Pres, signifying approval, desire. 

It enabled him to converse with people he trusted in the presence of people he didn’t know. If he thought a white person present was a racist, he’d say, “I feel a draft.”  A narcotics officer was a “Bob Crosby”; more than one, “Bob and Bing.”

“I remember sitting down with him at a table, and he and I would converse, and, well, you know, he’d just say things,” pianist Jimmy Rowles told Lewis Porter  Graham Colombe (in Lewis Porter’s Lester Young Reader). “And I knew what he was talking about, but nobody else knew what he was talking about….

“All women were ‘hats.’  He used to say, like, ‘I see you’re wearing a new hat.’  And he’d be talking about the girl, the woman…the whole conversation would go down about her, and she didn’t even know what they were talking about.” 

Though he was a big star with Count Basie when he was drafted in 1944, he wasn’t put in a band — wasn’t even allowed to play his horn.  He was court-martialed for possession of marijuana (or maybe it was the photo of his white wife in his locker), and sentenced to a year in the brig. According to drummer Jo Jones, who was drafted with him, Young was beaten and tormented by racist white officers.

He’s famous for admonishing horn players to learn the lyrics to the tunes they would play.

“Lester sings with his horn,” said Holiday. “You listen and you can almost hear the words.”

You don’t hear much direct influence of Lester in young saxophonists today.  Time marches on.  Pres Lives, though, on youtube.  Check Lady Be Good, with Count Basie, and Lester Leaps In, with a quintet featuring Nat King Cole. 

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Category: arts, history


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