Lester Young: Lester Leaps In

15 Mar

Lester Young

Lester Young: The Aladdin Sessions

On the anniversary of the death of saxophonist Lester Young on this day in 1959.

President’s Day may be in February, but every day is the Prez’s day if you play some Lester Young. His nickname is most frequently credited to singer and Count Basie bandmate Billie Holiday, who in turn Young is often credited with nicknaming Lady Day.

Young was one of the first of the prominent sax players, and his rivalry with Coleman Hawkins was the jazz equivalent of Red Sox-Yankees.

“I was a big Coleman Hawkins fan by that time,” saxophonist Sonny Rollins said in an interview on sonnyrollins.com (link below). “So one day a friend of mine came out and he said, ‘Sonny who’s the  greatest tenor player in the world?’ So I said Coleman Hawkins. He said, ‘No Lester Young.’ I said, ‘Whaddya mean Lester Young? Coleman Hawkins.’ 

“I said let me find out who this Lester Young is.”

Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Mentors

Like Charlie Parker, Young’s life was troubled by abuse problems, and his death was premature, at age 49. It was memorialized in song in the manner William Butler Yeats’ death was in verse by W.H. Auden. Wayne Shorter penned Lester Left Town and Charles Mingus wrote Goodbye Pork Pie Hat (renamed Theme for Lester Young) in tribute. Joni Mitchell later put words to Goodbye Pork Pie Hat:

When Charlie speaks of Lester
You know someone great has gone
The sweetest swinging music man
Had a Porkie Pig hat on
—-  Joni Mitchell

Jazz critic Leonard Feather wrote in the liner notes to Lester Young’s The Aladdin Sessions that he went to the funeral home with Holiday, and she told him: “I’ll be the next to go.” Four months and two days later, Holiday died.

“It is never easy to be a rebel in any of the arts,” wrote Feather in the liner notes to The Aladdin Sessions. “It was triply difficult, in the 1930s and 1940s, to be black and a jazzman and a rebel.”


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