Sunday, August 30, 2009
Tipping My Hat to Prez
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Lester Young’s birth. He’s already been gone for 50 years, but his mellifluous saxophonic recordings jazz on. Known as Prez to fans, players, friends, and family a young Lester got his big break playing with Count Basie in 1934. He transformed the brash hard line of sax into something sexy, softer, bluer. Some have credited him with taking Jimmy Dorsey’s mellow sound and perfecting it into a counterpoint of the brassy pomp of Coleman Hawkins. Prez’s music would go on to influence Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz and many others; his quirky style of dress would inspire Charlie Mingus to write “Goodbye Porkpie Hat”. Above all else Prez was an innovator he didn’t hold the sax the customary way those before him had. He held it at 45 degree angle rather than vertically. He was notorious for his verbal coloratura and coinages. He is credited with using the word bread in reference to money and the ubiquitous “cool”. When he was enamored by something he said he had “big eyes” for it. He gave Billie Holiday her nickname “Lady Day” and in turn she christened him Prez.
Young was born in Woodville, Mississippi on August 27, 1909. He’d cut his teeth in Kansas City where he’d meet Count Basie and later go on to replace, the imminent tenor sax of the time, Coleman Hawkins, and played for Fletcher Henderson. He collaborated with Billie Holliday, Benny Goodman, many stars.
From 1946 onward he would play with the Philharmonic, opening the door wider for jazz to put it closer into the loftier European musical sphere. He preferred the intimacy of smaller groups than the big bands of Basie. His great short-coming was his seemingly unquenchable desire for drink. Still, even with fighting on and off these demons he produced a stunning oeuvre. Prez in Europe recorded in 1956, three years before he died, remains one of his best.
Two of my personal favorites of his are “Blue Lester” and “She’s Funny That Way”.