Magazine article The New Yorker

Hail to the Chief

Magazine article The New Yorker

Hail to the Chief

Article excerpt

In the mid-nineteen-thirties, a fat, stomping tone was viewed as the ideal for a tenor saxophonist. "Some of you guys are all belly," complained Lester Young, who crashed the scene as a member of Count Basie's legendary travelling ensemble. Disregarding the shrieking blue notes and scalar runs championed by Coleman Hawkins and his legion of imitators, Young fashioned a muted, velvety approach to soloing. To hear him at his apex on the four-disk set "Lester Young with Count Basie (1936-1940)" (Mosaic) is to be enshrouded by a fog bank of sound. Breathy, rounded, vaporous--like a whisper that pricks up the hairs in the ear--Young's tone was a kind of high-Romantic art.

Young's reputation has flagged over the years, with naysayers claiming that there were times he couldn't muster enough air to fill his horn. But, before mental illness set in and his physical powers deteriorated, Young not only took part in some of jazz's greatest dates; he was the chief reason for their greatness. …

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