Jazz saxophonist Lester “Prez” Young became a leading swing era instrumentalist and innovator with bandleader Count Basie and in combos of his own during the 1930s. Born in Woodville, Mississippi, on 27 August 1909, Young was the son of Willis H. Young, a schoolteacher and music professor from Thibodaux, Louisiana, and Lizetta Johnson Young, from Woodville, also a schoolteacher and piano teacher. Willis Young left his wife in 1919 and played numerous instruments and led dance and carnival-minstrel bands through the 1920s, taking Lester and his brother and sister, Irma and Lee, on the road.
Taught by Willis Young, Lester started on drums at age ten, but he and his siblings also learned to dance, and the younger children played and performed in vaudeville. In his early teens Young switched to saxophone and sometimes danced while blowing his horn, becoming a showman from the outset. His rhythmically charged playing on this relatively new jazz instrument showed the influence of the drums he had liked so much as a youngster.
Around 1930 Young moved to Minneapolis, where he played in small dance bands at clubs such as the Nest with trumpeter Le Roy “Snake” Whyte and reedman Eddie Barefield and toured with bands such as the Oklahoma City Blue Devils, whom he joined in 1932. When the Blue Devils broke up in West Virginia the next year, Young and the remaining band members hoboed back to Kansas City, where he joined Joseph “King” Oliver’s orchestra. Young starred with these bands as a “get off” man, a hot soloist whose exciting innovations inspired fans and fellow musicians. Young joined New York City bandleader Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra in 1934. The other members of the sax section did not like Young’s unique tone, which differed from that of their hero, Coleman Hawkins, whom Young had replaced. They ostracized him and refused to help him learn Henderson’s arrangements, and Young returned to Minneapolis, playing with Rook Ganz’s combo at the city’s Cotton Club.
Though usually regarded as a Kansas City musician, Young did not reside in that city until he joined Count Basie at the Reno Club around 1936. Basie had also been a Blue Devil, and he recruited several former band members—including Oran “Hot Lips” Page, Jimmy Rushing, and Walter Page. Basie signed a record contract in 1936, and the band toured midwestern and eastern cities. Young was the premier soloist in an orchestra packed with stars—Rushing, Buck Clayton, Herschel Evans, Harry “Sweets” Edison, and singer Billie Holiday. Young had a profound influence, not only on saxophonists Charlie Parker and Don Byas, trumpeter Miles Davis, and guitarists B. B. King, John Collins, and Barney Kessel but also on Beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Though Young was known as a hot swing stylist, B. B. King and many other musicians credited him with starting the cool school in jazz. He was also highly respected for his stylish dress, including the wide-brimmed porkpie hat that became his trademark, and for using hipster argot or “swing slang” almost exclusively. He earned the nickname Prez, for “President of Tenor Saxophonists.”
In 1944 Young was drafted into the US Army. Though many white musicians were assigned to band units such as those led by Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw, Young was not; instead, he was sent to basic training at Fort McClellan, Alabama. According to drummer Jerry Potter, who was also stationed at Fort McClellan, Young refused to cut his hair, sleep in a barracks or wear army boots, believing that “he didn’t need basic training, because he was never going to fire a gun.” Said Young, “I don’t want to kill anyone. I want to play and make them happy.” Young was subsequently court-martialed for using marijuana, spent a year in detention barracks (an experience that inspired his later composition, “D. B. Blues”), and received a dishonorable discharge in 1945.
His army experience was traumatic and affected his mental state for the rest of his life. Not only did his playing take on a darker tone after the war, but his alcohol consumption dramatically increased. He suffered a nervous breakdown in late 1955, improved and returned to performing, but soon began to decline again. After a short European tour, he returned to New York City on 14 March 1959 and died early the next morning.
- Frank Buchmann-Moller, You Got to Be Original, Man! The Music of Lester Young (1990)
- Douglas Henry Daniels, Lester Leaps In: The Life and Times of Lester “Pres” Young (2002)
- Luc Delannoy, Pres: The Story of Lester Young (1993)
- Tom Vitale, “Lester Young: ‘The Prez’ Still Rules at 100” (27 August 2009), http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112255870