Innovator. Influencer. Troubled genius. Counter-cultural icon. Lester Young was all of these things and more.

The tenor saxophonist was one of the great early improvising personalities, whose influence upon generations of subsequent jazz musicians cannot be understated.

And despite a short life which was beset by ill health and personal problems, the influential jazz musician left behind some of the most perfectly melodic solos of all time.

In this article we’ll look at 10 definitive “moments” that tell the story of the President’s life in music, including collaborations with Count Basie, Billie Holiday and Oscar Peterson, as well as classic solo recordings and tales from his colourful personal life, such as his ill-fated stint in the army…

You’ll find info on many of the other tenor saxophone greats here.

Early Years in New Orleans and the Family Band

Lester Willis Young was born in Woodville, Mississippi in 1909.

His family moved to Algiers, New Orleans while he was still a baby, and the vibrant port, renowned as America’s most musical city at the time, would leave a big impression upon the young Lester.

His father led a touring band, in which Lester first played the drums. After becoming fed up with the effort of putting a drum kit away at the end of gigs, he switched to the alto saxophone. His younger brother Lee later took over the drum chair; Lee would go on to have a successful career as a jazz drummer himself.

The family band covered thousands of miles, maintaining a relentless touring schedule.

Aged 18, having had a somewhat fractious relationship with his father for some time, Lester left the band, refusing to undertake a run of gigs in the racially segregated southern states.

Having by now settled upon the tenor saxophone, he found work with the Bostonians, a band led by the pianist Art Bronson, followed by a stint with bassist Walter Page’s Blue Devils.

One of the early influences upon his light, airy sound was the C melody saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer:

“Trumbauer was my idol…I tried to get the sound of a C melody on tenor. That’s why I don’t sound like other people. Trumbauer always told a little story, and I liked the way he slurred his notes.”

Classic Early Recordings with Count Basie and Joe Jones

Settling in Kansas City, Lester now joined up with Count Basie, a fellow Blue Devils alumnus.

The pianist and bandleader is best known for his powerful, gloriously swinging big band albums from the 1950s and beyond.

But in the mid-1930s Basie made some of the most important small-group recordings in jazz history.

In 1936 a band including Young, Basie, Walter Page, trumpeter Carl Smith, and drummer Jo Jones recorded four tracks, two of which also featured vocalist Jimmy Rushing.

On the two instrumental numbers, “Lady Be Good” and “Shoe Shine Boy”, Young announces his arrival to the world with solo statements that are absolutely wondrous in their melodic ingenuity.

Solos that must be amongst the most studied and analysed in all of jazz.

Key Lester Young/Count Basie Recording: Shoe Shine Boy

Lester Young & Billie Holiday

The friendship between Billie Holiday and Lester Young is surely one of the great love stories in jazz.

Although their relationship was purely platonic, the pair shared a deep personal and musical affinity, and made some of the most touching recordings of all time.

Young liked to frequent late night jam sessions and it was at one of these, during a run of gigs in New York with the Basie band, that he ran into Holiday. They soon became inseparable. With the brilliant Teddy Wilson at the piano on most of the recordings, Young’s soft tenor sound complemented Holiday’s heart-felt vocal delivery perfectly on songs like “All of Me”, “A Sailboat in the Moonlight”, and “This Year’s Kisses”.

Billie affectionately called Lester Young “the President” (often shortened to “Prez” or “Pres”, while he gave her the nickname “Lady Day”.

Key Lester Young and Billie Holiday track: A Sailboat in the Moonlight

Count Basie & His Orchestra

In addition to the classic small group sessions that gave us “Lady Be Good” and “Shoe Shine Boy”, Lester made some of his best-loved early recordings with Basie’s full big band.

Previously he had left the Basie band to take up what was, at the time, a more prestigious position with Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra in New York, replacing Coleman Hawkins, who was then the dominant tenor sax voice in jazz.

However, his time with Henderson was not especially happy.

He was lonely in New York and the other saxophonists in the band did not like him; whilst he won plaudits for his imaginative soloing, his soft feathery tone was in sharp contrast to Hawkins’ gruff, beefy style.

Upon returning to Basie as featured tenor soloist he recorded classic improvisations on tracks such as “Taxi War Dance”, “Jive at Five”, “Cherokee”, “When You’re Smiling” and “Pound Cake”.

While all of Lester’s recorded output is important and influential, these solos were particularly impactful upon the generation of subsequent players who idolised him.

Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Paul Quinichette and others all counted Young as a major influence.

Check out this track he recorded with the Basie Orchestra: Jive At Five

Stint in the Army

In 1940 Lester Young, along with the drummer Jo Jones, was drafted into the U.S. army at the age of 35, despite suffering from alcoholism and various other medical problems.

While many white musicians who were drafted were put into military bands, Young was placed in the regular army, where he was not allowed to play his saxophone.

Very much a free spirit, Lester was also a shy, sensitive soul, and he was not well-suited to military life.

After being found with alcohol and marijuana in his locker, he received a dishonourable discharge and was sentenced to a year in a military prison. The whole experience was undoubtedly quite traumatic for Young, and he was inspired to compose “D.B. Blues” by the experience (with “D.B.” standing for “Detention Barracks”).

Jazz at the Philharmonic

After his release from military prison Prez began to find more commercial and financial success.

He was invited to tour as a star soloist with Jazz at the Philharmonic, a series of package concerts and tours arranged by promoter and impresario Norman Granz.

One of JATP’s most iconic moments came at a concert in Hollywood in 1946, the year after Young’s dishonourable discharge, with Charlie Parker also on the bill.

Bird, a pioneer of bebop, was by now the biggest saxophone star around, although he remained deeply respectful of Young, whose solos he studied extensively as a young musician.

After arriving late to the gig, Parker played a masterful solo on “Lady Be Good”, the George Gershwin number upon which Lester had played one of his very first recorded solos a decade earlier.

With no one wanting to follow Bird, Prez was gently pushed onto the stage.

While he couldn’t match Parker for instrumental virtuosity at this point, he played a statement of simple melodic beauty that stood as the perfect counterpoint to what Parker had played.

How magical it must have been to see those two legendary jazz saxophonists, full of mutual respect for one another, standing on stage together.

Key Jazz at the Philharmonic track: Lady Be Good

Trio with Nat King Cole and Buddy Rich

It might surprise you to learn that Nat King Cole and Buddy Rich played as sidemen in a trio format with Lester Young.

But, prior to becoming one of American’s most beloved crooners, Cole was one of the finest swing-to-bop pianists around.

And before Buddy Rich became a high-powered big band leader he played on small group jazz sessions with the likes of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson.

Recorded in Hollywood in 1946, these intimate sessions place the three in a relatively unusual bass-less format, with Cole’s virtuosic pianism providing both chordal accompaniment and the walking bass lines that we’d normally expect to hear provided by a double bassist.

Due to a contractual issue, Nat King Cole was credited as “Aye Guy” on the original release.

Key Lester Young recording with Nat King Cole and Buddy Rich: Somebody Loves Me

Prez Meets the Oscar Peterson Trio

There is a commonly-stated narrative that says that Lester’s recordings from the 1950s onwards are less valuable than his earlier work.

Certainly, as he suffered from alcoholism and poor health, his recordings could be hit-and-miss and he was not as spritely on the tenor as on those classic solos from the late ‘30s and early ‘40s.

But he was certainly still capable of solos of great beauty, and Young‘s playing was now arguably more emotionally broad.

The pianist Oscar Peterson made a series of albums on which his popular trio was joined by a guest horn player, and in 1952 he documented a couple of sessions in this vein with Young, on which the saxophonist plays wonderfully.

Some editions of this album include “It Takes Two to Tango” as a bonus track, on which we hear Lester’s charming singing voice!

Key Lester Young/Oscar Peterson track: Indiana

Reunion with Teddy Wilson

Lester Young was hospitalised in 1955 following a nervous breakdown, but after some treatment he found himself on relatively good form the following year.

For Norman Granz’s Verve label he cut Pres and Teddy with Teddy Wilson, the pianist and bandleader from most of the classic tracks that Lester had made with Billie Holiday, almost two decades earlier.

The programme of six standards (including the obscure Ricard Whiting song “Louise”) and one original composition (“Pres Returns”) is among the high points of Pres’ late career.

“Although it has been written much too often that Lester Young declined rapidly from the mid-’40s on, the truth is that when he was healthy, Young played at his very best during the ’50s, adding an emotional intensity to his sound that had not been present during the more carefree days of the ’30s. This classic session finds the great tenor in particularly expressive form.” Scott Yanow, All Music

Final Years

Lester Young was unable to recover from his alcoholism and his health steadily declined. He died following his return from a tour in Paris in 1959, aged just 49.

One of the most notable musical moments from around this period came in 1957, when he recorded a CBS television special with Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Gerry Mulligan, Ben Webster and Roy Eldridge.

On Holiday’s blues composition “Fine and Mellow”, both her and Prez give particularly moving performances, with the saxophonist delivering a masterclass in thoughtful economy.

Holiday was also in poor health by this point.

Famously, at Lester’s funeral she told jazz critic Leonard Feather: “I’ll be the next one to go”. She died just four months later, aged 44.

In addition to Lester Young’s mammoth musical contribution, he also left a significant cultural legacy.

He was a stylish dresser (his trademark broad-rimmed porkpie hat immortalised by Charles Mingus’ composition Goodby Pork Pie Hat) and often spoke in impenetrable slang.

He is said to have popularised the use of words such as “cool” (to mean something fashionable),”bread” (to mean money), “crib” (to mean someone’s home) and “homeboy” (to mean a close friend).

Looking for more saxophone-related info? 

Check out our complete collection of sax articles here and, in particular, look out for in-depth round ups of fellow tenor giants Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane.

Matt Fripp
Matt Fripp

International jazz booking agent, manager and host of Jazzfuel.
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