Lester Leaves Town

Article excerpt

RICHARD COOK on the recorded legacy of a tragic genius

Lester Young was a strange man. At the forefront of a tough, macho music, the jazz scene of the late 1930s through to the late 1950s, Young played in an almost feminine way, and affected the style and mannerisms of a gay man, even though he wasn't gay. His famous private language, an argot of phrases such as "needle dancer" (a heroin user) or "Oxford grey" (a light-skinned black man), ensured that only his own circle would ever understand him (anyone he didn't like was called "Von Hangman"). He played the tenor saxophone with a sound that was the antithesis of the big, burly style of Coleman Hawkins. Before Young, Hawkins was the role model for all tenormen. After him, it was an even split. Without Young's keening, sidelong way of playing, there would have been no Stan Getz or Zoot Sims or Warne Marsh. At the end of his life, it bothered him. "If I'm so great, Lady Tate," he said to fellow saxophonist Buddy Tate, "how come all the other tenor players, the ones who sound like me, are making all the money?"

He died in 1959, not quite 50 years old, prematurely worn out by drink and perhaps by a hypersensitivity which his calling could scarcely accommodate. In the 1930s, when he first appeared with the Count Basie band, his playing had most of its idiosyncrasies already, but they were delivered in a sleek, honeyed sound that, for all its lightness, managed to fly out of the big mid-Western Basie machine with incomparable brio. In the 1950s, which is the period celebrated by The Complete Lester Young Studio Sessions On Verve (Verve, eight CDs), that beautiful tone was almost gone, and the phrasing was frequently choked by shortness of breath. But he was still Lester Young.

His playing began to change in the early 1940s, taking a more oblique relationship with the beat, focusing more on a song's melody, anticipating the abstractions of bop and even some of what came after that. …