Lester Young biography covers the story of great jazz


November 21, 1990|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

"You Just Fight for Your Life: The Story of Lester Young," by Frank Buchmann-Moller, 282 pages, Praeger Publishers, New York, N.Y., $24.95.

LESTER YOUNG created his own tenor saxophone style, his own way of talking, his own sartorial fashion, his own world. He liked to say it takes pretty people to make the music pretty. He was one of the prettiest people and he made lovely, lovely music.

Young was one of the three or four most influential tenor saxophone voices in jazz.

Lester Young floated his tenor style on a light, airy, self-propelled swing. He played chorus after chorus with relaxed, easy clarity, endlessly inventive. His music flowed effortlessly, pulsing forward even in the pauses when he wasn't playing a note.

"He could play a hundred choruses and play them all different," said Lionel Phillips, a trumpet player.

Phillips had known Lester from the time they worked together in a band Lester's father, Billy Young, led. Lester, his mother, his sister, Irma, a fine saxophonist, and his brother, Lee, an excellent drummer, all played in the band.

Lester was 10 in 1919 when he started touring the South and Southwest carnival and tent show circuit with his father's band. He paid some dues, as they say in the jazz life.

"Lester could improvise on the same theme for an hour at a stretch without once giving the impression that he might be running out of ideas," said John Hammond, the critic and music entrepreneur who "discovered" Lester, Count Basie, Billie Holiday and Bob Dylan as well.

Even such an august authority as the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians calls Young "the most original jazz improviser between Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker." And Lester influenced Parker, the peerless alto saxophone player.

Billie Holiday called him The President, which became Pres and Prez, and stuck. He called her Lady Day. The music they made together is among the most sublime in American jazz. They were true collaborators. She sang the way jazz musicians played. And his tenor perfectly supported her singing, encouraged her best performances and enhanced them with some of his finest playing.

"Every musician should be a stylist," Prez said. "You've got to have a style that's all your own. A man can only be a stylist if he makes up his mind not to copy anybody.

"Originality is the thing," he said. "You can have tone and technique and a lot of other things but without originality you ain't really anywhere."

He acknowledged his own influences and he was immensely influential himself. Tenor saxophonists from Dexter Gordon to Paul Quinichette, Al Cohn, Stan Getz, Zoot Simms and even contemporary players like Scott Hamilton reflect his influence.

"But," he said, "there's a time when you have to go out and tell your own story."

Max Roach, the seminal modern drummer, recalled that when he was young he tried to sound like Jo Jones, the great Count Basie drummer who later often played with Prez.

"You know what, Lady Roach," Lester said, "you can't be in the choir until you've learned to sing your own song."

Lester called everybody "Lady." His unique language was as much of his style as his porkpie hat, his zoot-ish suits and his long black topcoat. He was the original hipster and he lived his life radically askew, the way he held his horn -- at a 45-degree angle.

Frank Buchman-Moller's biography of Prez, "You Just Fight for Your Life," is earnest, diligent, serious and well-informed. He's a Danish saxophone player who has played jazz since he was about 15. He seems to have interviewed everybody he could find who played with Prez. And he loves Lester Young.

His book minutely examines Lester's life from the tours with his father's band, to the great days with Count Basie and Billie Holiday, to his horrendous, ridiculous, mean, bruising Army experience, to his last sad, sick years when his playing became weary and wary but never hopeless.

Prez grew tired and anxious and sometimes indifferent. But he could play a wonderful, inventive, swinging solo to the end. He was 50 when he died in 1959. Thad Jones, the fine Basie trumpet player, recalled him as "a majestic player.

"He was one of the first people to put space in his music. He felt that there was beauty in space and flurried it with ideas and flurried it with design."

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