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The President of the Tenor Saxophone
Lester "Pres" (or "Prez") Young (1909-1959) was without question one of the most influential tenor saxophonists of the twentieth century. While Coleman Hawkins is justly recognized as having been the first to popularize the tenor saxophone in jazz, Young revealed an entirely new dimension to the instrument. Then, too, Young was a genuine cultural hero to many fans and other musicians, partly because of his unique musical style, but also because he was a real rebel—or individualist, depending upon one's point of view. His refusal to bow to the dictates of popular opinion regarding his playing, or to the military authorities after he was drafted (eventually leading to his court-martial in early 1945), only enhanced his stature among his fans in an age of patriotism and conformity.
He was, as guitarist Barney Kessel maintained, perhaps the most controversial as well as one of the most gifted of musicians. Besides denying having been influenced by Coleman Hawkins, he was notoriously aloof, at once shy and uncommunicative, relying on his own unique jargon, jazz slang, and witty comments when he did speak. He was described by more than one writer as elusive and, in his later life, suspicious. Even some of his fellow musicians found him strange, with some likening him to an extraterrestrial. The saxophonist was a musical legend, one of those colorful jazz characters of the 1940s, but he also had a serious drinking problem that ultimately robbed him of his health. Only his inner circle and a few hangers-on knew hisprivate side. He was actually gentle, sensitive, and quite chivalrous toward women; he never spoke ill of anyone and was generous to a fault with loans and gifts. And there was yet another dimension to his private life: like Louis Armstrong, he smoked marijuana daily and unashamedly, in the solitude of his hotel rooms.
Despite his controversial character, he was, in the opinion of everyone who played with him, of his family, and of many fans, first and foremost a superior musician. Both his virtuosity as a soloist and his actual compositions were singularly influential among musicians besides saxophonists, and his manner of speech, style of dress, and general demeanor all led the Beat Generation to lionize him. He first came to the notice of the public with the Count Basic band in 1936, and the title by which he became known, "Pres," or "Prez"—short for "President of the Tenor Saxophone"—would last long after his passing in 1959. Moreover, acclaim for his musical prowess was the rule for him for over two decades. His popularity among his fans endured despite his poor health toward the end and in spite of the considered opinion of many critics and reviewers that his playing had diminished in quality.
This book deals with the life and significance of this brilliant saxophonist, but it is not the usual type of jazz biography. When I started working on it, no full-length biography of Young had ever been published, but as other such volumes began to appear, I became even more firmly convinced that there was much more to the history of Black folk and to the evolution of jazz than could be found in these or many other books about Black musicians. I had always admired those earlier jazz biographies that were based on interviews with their subjects and that were thus, in a sense, autobiographical, such as Alan Lomax's Mister Jelly Roll and Larry Gara's The Baby Dodds Story. But that was a model I could not follow, since I myself never met Young (I was just a teenager when he died), and no one else ever interviewed him at length, as Lomax and Gara did Jelly Boll Morton and Dodds, respectively. The problem was daunting: how does one write the biography of someone who left only a few interviews but hundreds of hours of recorded music, when readers are so accustomed to reading about people who kept diaries, scrapbooks of clippings, and other kinds of written records?
Further complicating matters was the fact that Young himself did not often contribute to the clear presentation of the details of his own life; he not only was careless about dating events but, as his nephew James Tolbert has noted, could be "kind of frosty" toward interviewers and people he did not know. Lee Young claimed that the writer Ralph Cleason got close enough to his brother to appreciate his sterling worth, but Gleason was alone among critics in this regard. Nonetheless, the saxophonist did stick to the facts in some areas, notably when it came to his early musical training, and such information, corroborated to the extent that it can be, provides some insights that can be compared to the recollections of other musicians of his generation.
What this work attempts to do is in some ways very simple. My object has been, first, to uncover historical evidence that may shed new light on the details and significance of the saxophonist's life, utilizing published interviews with him as well as public records, archives, and oral histories; and then, second, to interpret that within the context of what we know about his family, about the careers of other, contemporary musicians, and about Black history and culture. This necessitates taking into account the views of Young's family members as well as his fellow musicians, an approach that in itself seems reasonable enough, until one considers that often the opinions of Black folk are not taken seriously, both in the United States in general and in jazz scholarship in particular. Only then does it become apparent just how controversial such a strategy might be.
Many writers interview jazz musicians to glean details of their lives, discographical information, and accounts of specific incidents, especially humorous ones, but these writers are usually journalists, not historians. Also of significance is the fact that on those occasions when musicians speak of the philosophy behind their music, such ideas are rarely analyzed or even commented upon by writers. While I have relied to some extent upon evidence and opinions from some critics (some of whom are superb at what they do), the writings of other journalists have more often carried the day because their ideas are in better accord with prevailing beliefs about Black musicians. Where I have made use of the pronouncements and opinions of critics—or of relatives and sidemen, for that matter—I have been careful not to blithely accept them as the final word on a matter, a failing that is seen in far too many histories, in my estimation.
I wanted, in this work, to place Young and his experiences front and center and within their appropriate historical context, a context that has changed considerably thanks to the efforts of scholars over the past generation. The music culture is far too important to be neglected by those interested in its various manifestations, from songs and dances to slang, dress, and lifestyles. Also, jazz audiences—dancers, fans, and other various jazzophiles—tend to interact with "their" music to a much greater degree than those who favor European classical works. Black music, including jazz, involves significant audience activity; beyond dancing, audience members offer vocal encouragement, and the music itself often serves as a backdrop for partying, conversation, and carrying on. As the composer and pianist Thomas "Fats" Waller once explained, swing was "just a musical phase of our social life." This fact, however, is largely lost on the wider public and on many writers, who remain oblivious to the new scholarship in the field of Black Studies on the complex dynamics of both African and African American history and culture.
I myself have always felt this very strongly. The music (a term I prefer to the word jazz) has been a part of my life since I was in my teens. As a child, I listened to the Hit Parade on the radio in Princeton Park, the Black community on the far South Side of Chicago where I grew up, and memorized songs by whites—especially Bill Haley and Hank Williams —along with ones by Blacks such as Little Richard and Chuck Berry. My older sisters liked the Platters, Ray Charles, and Johnny Mathis, and thanks to their record collection, I also discovered jazz as it was played by Ahmad Jamal, the Three Sounds, and Ramsey Lewis, all of whom were very popular in Chicago.
As I reflect upon it now, I realize that my passion for music came from my father, who was born in New Orleans but grew up in Chicago's Black Belt in the 1920s, and who along with his childhood friends saw the former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson when he was a nightclub owner and heard tales of the battles among King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and other trumpet players. The fact that my father could identify Clark Terry's trumpet playing from just a few notes really impressed me, but I was even more in awe of his ability to mimic singers such as Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington, which suggests to me now that he was much closer to the music than I ever realized at the time. During my last years of high school, I felt transformed by my discovery of the music of Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis. I knew that their music and their lives would be of major importance to me, no matter what I ended up doing.
One other autobiographical note is relevant here. Two years spent teaching primary school in Tanzania, in 1965 and 1966, introduced me to the Kiswahili language, the history, and the peoples of East Africa. I also became acquainted then with the worldviews of Tanzanians and the ethos of a newly independent and Socialist government. During my second year there, the government prohibited foreigners like me from teaching history and geography. The reasoning behind this was that only other Africans could provide African children with the proper perspective, one in which the "great explorers" such as Livingstone and Stanley were regarded as mere "visitors."
I became sympathetic to this anticolonial outlook, and after I came back to the United States, my new insights were sharpened by the uprisings of 1967, a summer of considerable unrest and awakening on the part of African Americans. I entered graduate school at Berkeley that fall, avidly interested in African American history and convinced that once I had developed my research skills, I could set about discovering a historical perspective that would do justice to African Americans and jazz, in much the same way that African historians and government officials were recasting the teaching and conceptualization of African history from an anticolonial point of view.
From the outset of my research on Lester Young, I learned to question the once-prevailing notions promoted by the jazz journals, especially in contemporary record reviews, highlighting Young's successes with Basie and exaggerating his decline after 1945. The critics' Eurocentric emphasis—as when they likened Young to Mozart, for example, in reviews of reissues of the saxophonist's work in the 1980s—was also troubling, both in and of itself and because it carried such bald connotations of racial superiority in the suggestion that the saxophonist was worthy of comparison with this or that European master.
When I first began doing research for this book, I did not really notice how frequently my sources were giving me—often in just a few words—verbal snapshots of Young that challenged existing conceptions. For example, when he was asked if the saxophonist had played differently after being discharged from the military, Wilbur "Buck" Clayton expressed the heretical opinion that he had played better, even though according to jazz legend, Young's playing had suffered after his stint in the army. Clayton also recalled that Young's father had been a professor of music, pointing to the development of talent within the family over multiple generations. In another instance, in interviews with me, several Blue Devils with whom Young had played in 1932 and 1933 took credit for naming him Pres, contradicting the widespread belief that Billie Holiday had given him that nickname. In other words, his identity as "Pres" had preceded his meeting the singer or joining Count Basie's band, despite hallowed folklore and testimony to the contrary.
In interviews and casual conversation, both family members and fellow musicians questioned the prevailing wisdom about Young in ways that were not only tactful and insightful but profound. I remember how the late Connie Kay, drummer in the Modern Jazz Quartet, responded to allegations that Young had had bad nights, or hadn't played as well, or had failed to meet his own artistic goals in the 1950s: he said that as a sideman, he couldn't make those kinds of judgments about Young, or about Charlie Parker, either, for that matter, because those two men had been artists, not imitators. To paraphrase Kay, when an imitator plays something differently, you can conclude that he doesn't have it together, but how can you tell with a musician of the caliber of a Pres or a Bird, both of whom were always experimenting? I rarely encountered comments as thoughtful as this in the printed jazz literature.
Kay told me of another drummer, Carl "Kansas" Fields, who had been with Young during his last days in Paris and who in 1981 was living on Chicago's South Side. Fields was an unassuming gentleman who responded that he was still learning—and was enrolled in a local college—when I asked him when he had learned to play the drums. He very patiently explained what was then a new idea to me, that Young's music reflected the man himself, and that his personality was expressed in his music. In other words, the saxophonist had been a total artist, whose life was submerged in his art. This concept merely puzzled me at the time, but it made me want to go deeper into the subject matter in an attempt to understand Fields's notion and the perspective that had fostered it.
From the musicians I learned to be highly skeptical of received wisdom about Pres. I also came to appreciate their often quite scientific approach to questioning people's ideas about such things: Were you there every night? they would ask. Did you play or travel with him? Did he himself tell you that? Such questions deal with the very essence of the respondent's knowledge about jazz and are therefore essentially epistemological, touching on the nature of opinion and on how we know what we know.
This kind of skepticism was, I thought, quite healthy. In my own interviews, I noted a certain tendentiousness on the part of a few musicians, who disagreed with whatever I suggested about the music's history and indicated that it was always greater than expectations or preconceived notions. This was one way they had of resisting the labels and ideas that were commonly assigned to them, regardless of their opinions. Furthermore, it reflected a measure of intelligence not generally attributed to jazz musicians.
Still, I wondered, why are the opinions of musicians so readily discounted by critics, and why do writers so rarely secure the cooperation of family members in jazz biographies? These were some of the questions I pondered over the years as I interviewed musicians. Family connections are seldom examined in any detail in jazz biographies, but as Jo Jones pointed out, African Americans have family traditions just like the Rockefellers and the Kennedys. Many jazz writers seem to ignore this fact, for whatever reason. In this respect, the Young family's oral tradition was particularly rich, and it was not one they always shared with writers. They were typical Louisianans, a tightly knit family presided over by a patriarch, Young's father, and his father before him. They had their own unique perspectives on the saxophonist and on other family members. For example, Young's father, the music professor, impressed upon his children the importance of a work ethic, punctuality, self-discipline, sticking to one's principles, and standing up for something—specific values that were adopted by his children, including Lester, but that have often been overlooked by those writing about Young.
Moreover, important spiritual truths and traditions were a part of the family heritage for generations. Jacob Young, Lester's paternal grandfather, was a pillar of Allen Chapel, the first African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) church in Lafourche Parish, in the bayou country of Louisiana about sixty miles from New Orleans; his name is listed on a memorial plaque in the church's vestibule. Martha, his wife, was a missionary. The saxophonist's father conducted church choirs. The women of the Young family sang and gave recitations in church; Lester's aunt Mamie married the minister of Allen Chapel late in the nineteenth century. Unlike the Baptists, the denomination to which the majority of African Americans belonged (and still belong), the members of the A.M.E. were quite cerebral in their spiritual demeanor, not given to jumping up and shouting or dancing with joy, as many of their Protestant brethren did.
The pianist Sadik Hakim, a Young sideman (and one of the first such I interviewed), stressed that he had seen Young as a spiritual leader—another of those opinions that have gone largely unpublicized. Hakim's assertion was quite perplexing to me at the beginning of my research because Young had usually been portrayed as a rebel, an iconoclast, and an alcoholic—qualities not generally associated with spiritual leaders. Nevertheless, a memorial service has been held for him at Saint Peter's in Manhattan every March since the 1980s.
Whenever I told musicians that I wanted to ask them about Lester Young, they invariably corrected my use of his name: "You mean Pres?" His identity as President of the Tenor Saxophone was so compelling that long after his death, this term was still presented as his rightful title, representing the essence of his stature in the jazz world. Of course, it was some time before I understood the significance of their correcting me: it was tantamount to their saying that he was a giant who should be spoken of in a manner befitting his singular contribution. This habit of theirs impressed upon me the permanence of the mark Young had left upon music.
Revealing though they were, however, the insights that Young's sidemen provided were limited to some degree. I knew I needed to get a better sense of the historical, social, and cultural influences that had shaped Young, and so I began archival research in Louisiana parishes and other places where his family had lived prior to his going out on his own, in around 1929. Eventually this research led to Lester's father, Willis H. Young, who Buck Clayton said had taught music and voice, played every kind of instrument, led bands all over the country, and trained not only his children but his grandchildren and generations of other musicians.
Some old-timers, such as Le Boy "Snake" Whyte and Charles "Truck" Parham, helped me re-create the Minneapolis milieu (oddly neglected in histories of jazz) in which Young had spent nearly a decade of his career. I also bore down on the U.S. Manuscript Census, which turned out to be of less use than I had hoped: I could never find any listing for Willis Young after 1900, and the identification of Lester, his sister Irma, their mother, and their stepmother was problematic, too. But it was through the census that I discovered Aunt Mamie, Willis's sister, living with her husband in Washington Parish, Louisiana, in 1910, and without that piece of information it would never have occurred to me to search that parish's records for her brother's marriage license.
Throughout my years of research on this book, I felt a sense of responsibility toward the members of Young's family, who took me into their confidence; above all, I wanted to remain true to their trust rather than betray it with a quick publication that would add little to our knowledge of the saxophonist or, even worse, contribute to the all-too-prevalent misinformation and misunderstandings about him. During his life and after his death in 1959, rumors circulated that led to a persistent and unsympathetic depiction of him as an aging alcoholic, a has-been whose artistry had declined precipitously after he was drafted into the U.S. Army, court-martialed for possessing marijuana, and dishonorably discharged in 1945. Then, too, I often recalled the words of advice that Young once gave a sideman, Valdo Williams, who paused in a solo as if uncertain whether to take another chorus: "Never give up.... Don't ever give up."
I felt obliged to write a sympathetic portrait because I believed it would permit a better understanding of my subject than any other kind of approach. One reader's response to an early draft of my manuscript typified the reactions of those who wanted me to make judgments about Young—to condemn him for being irresponsible and a bad father, for abandoning his wife and children when he went to live at the Alvin Hotel in Manhattan toward the end of his life.
Such opinions were never voiced about Lester by his family members or sidemen, who were in fact puzzled and sometimes troubled by attempts on the part of the press to portray Young as anything but a gentle, sensitive artist who was misunderstood and maligned during his lifetime. One Blue Devil, Ernie Williams, rather cryptically remarked to me, "It was a damn shame what they did to Lester." (Williams did not consent to be interviewed.)
I came to reject the conviction of some writers that those closest to Young were hiding some deep, dark secret about him. Furthermore, the portrait drawn by family members and fellow musicians seemed to contrast so sharply with published descriptions of Young as to require a revisionist portrayal of the saxophonist, undertaken in much the same spirit in which historians have revised African, African American, and U.S. history over the past generation.
Eventually I came to appreciate why so few people really did or could know Young: like many musicians, he had a rich social life outside the world of commercial entertainment, a life that he guarded closely because he valued it as private. For him and others like him, relations with spouses, children, other family members, and musician friends and their families were particularly important because they were their own and they were real, intimate, and sustaining, different in character from the tinsel and hullabaloo of show business. Young, for one, often visited with what he called his "waybacks"—friends he had known for years—when he traveled on the road with his combo. At other times, in a world of his own making, he would "hold court"—to use saxophonist John "Zoot" Sims's expression—with sidemen and local musicians in his hotel room or backstage. This jazz musicians' universe of family and close friends, and its meaning to the musicians themselves, would have been invisible to outsiders and writers unless, for example, they were regularly invited to dinner in a musician's home or, an even rarer occurrence, married into his family.
Excerpted from Lester Leaps In by Douglas Henry Daniels. Copyright © 2002 by Douglas Henry Daniels. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted July 26, 2002
The great Jazz aside, this book is a great example of life in pre civil rights America. Lester Young is the most creative man of his era and it is all reflected in his work and art. After reading this I havbe gained a greater appriciation for his expressiveness and his abilty to express dire circumstances through his insturment of choice.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 24, 2001
Young left behind such a complicaed legacy that it was inevitable that someone would put the pieces of his life together in a way to explain him. This book doesn't just lay out the facts and interviews to leave the reader to make up their own story. This book does do him some great justice in this reguard. As for jazz music buffs (as myself), they will find a hard time clearing up some of the musical mysteries (was there ever really a recording of him singing 'A Little Bit North of South Carolina'?) and updating his discography. Lester's story by itself is one of the most underrated cautionary tales in race relations and has been an education to me (I'm under 30) as to how segregation and racism really was in the days of Jim Crow laws. Thanks to his story, I know now that may never really appriciate the social injustices. But now I have an idea and a greater undrstanding. The book also brings out the family side of Young and paints a more complete picture of Young the mystic. These things are missing from previous bios. As a fan of Young's, I didn't mind when the book seemed to get a little preachy about how to judge Young. This my turn-off the casual fan and changes it from a literary bio to a crusade. That put me off a little. The last couple of chapters just barely scratch the surface of Young's impact on American Culture in general, but goes farther than any other book so far. I'd like to see a whole book on that.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.