Thursday was Lester Young’s (1909-1959) birthday, so it seemed appropriate to focus on him this week (Tuesday was Wayne Shorter’s birthday, but you get one of these a week and we’ve already done Shorter before). As one of the most popular and influential musicians to come out of jazz’s swing period, Young holds an important place in jazz history; he was, for example, one of Charlie Parker’s acknowledged influences. Born in Mississippi, Young got his start playing in the family band before leaving home and winding up in Kansas City; it was there that he wound up playing for Count Basie, and it was while playing for Basie that he achieved his fame. Young was known for his light, fluid style on the tenor (he’s often contrasted with his tenor contemporary, Coleman Hawkins, who was known for his powerful sound and technical proficiency), his warm tone throughout the instrument’s range, and his ingenuity in phrasing and harmony when he was improvising, which influenced bebop as well as the later “cool jazz” movement.
He was also, unfortunately, known for his prodigious drinking problem. Drafted into the army in 1944, Young was assigned to the regular infantry despite the fact that plenty of lesser white musicians were put into army bands like Glenn Miller’s. He lasted less than a year, and spent much of that time in detention, thanks to his drinking problem and some pot that was found in his possession. After his dishonorable discharge, he went back to playing professionally, but his drinking only got worse, and his playing started to decline as well. He died in 1959, ostensibly of heart failure, but the truth is that he drank himself to death. The esteem with which he was held in the jazz community is evident from the tributes he inspired, like Charles Mingus’s “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” and Wayne Shorter’s “Lester Left Town.”
Young is perhaps best known for his work in Basie’s bands or for his lifelong (and mutually self-destructive) friendship and professional collaboration with the legendary Billie Holiday, but Lester Young Trio (recorded in 1946) showcased him in a small group setting alongside Nat King Cole (another frequent Young collaborator) on piano and Buddy Rich on drums. As an aside, I figure most people who’ve heard of Cole are familiar with his singing, but he was a tremendous piano player whose abilities in that regard get overshadowed (it seems to me) by his singing. The list of great jazz pianists who were influenced by Cole is enormous: Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, and many more. And he’s so good on this particular album that you don’t really miss the absence of a bass, which I usually find jarring.
These tracks cover two albums that were both recorded in 1946: Lester Young Trio was released in 1951 and Lester Young Trio No. 2 was released in 1953. Both records were re-released in 1955 as The Lester Young Buddy Rich Trio, which shorts Cole, but then Cole was under contract to a competing record company when these things were recorded, so he doesn’t even appear on the album under his own name (he takes the alias “Aye Guy”). Putting his name in the album title probably would have been problematic.
Young really sings on the this cover of the standard “I Cover the Waterfront,” written by Johnny Green in 1933. Cole also gets a chance to shine:
“I Want to Be Happy” is off of Lester Young Trio No. 2 and was originally written by Vincent Youmans in 1925 for the musical No, No, Nanette. It’s a nice uptempo number that heavily features Rich’s drumming:
In contrast, “Peg o’ My Heart” doesn’t feature Rich, because he’d apparently left the studio to go get something to eat. Cole and Young kept noodling around with this 1913 Alfred Bryan-Fred Fisher standard until it got tight enough that they decided to record it without Rich:
“Back to the Land” is a blues written by Young himself. It really showcases the quality of his tone on the tenor:
Let’s close out (there are a couple more tunes from these albums out there, but you’ll have to track them down yourselves) on something uptempo, this cover of the 1926 Jack Palmer-Spencer Williams standard “I’ve Found a New Baby.” Everybody gets a chance to show off on this one:
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