Lester Young: Biography & Songs

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

In this lesson learn how Lester Young, who began his career by playing in his family's band and became a star in the Kansas City jazz scene. Read about how Young used his tenor saxophone to create new sounds in jazz.

Early Years

Have you ever wanted to play it cool? Jazz musician Lester Young sure did.

Lester Young (1909-1959) was born in Mississippi near New Orleans in 1909. His father, a musician, taught him and his two brothers to play instruments. They toured in a family band, performing on a regional circuit throughout the Midwest. Young demonstrated a lot of talent and as a boy he could play the violin, trumpet, drums and alto saxophone! But his father was a taskmaster and two often clashed.

In 1927, when he was eighteen, Lester left his family and struck out on his own, playing with several bands throughout the West and Midwest and moving through places like Phoenix, Arizona; Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Oklahoma City before settling for a while in Kansas City. During this time, he decided to concentrate on tenor saxophone as his primary instrument. The tenor sax is larger and plays in a lower register than alto sax. It's also pitched in the key of B flat instead of E flat. Young gained experience listening to and performing with excellent musicians, including bandleaders like Walter Page (who led the territorial band the Blue Devils), Bennie Moten and Fletcher Henderson.

Success as a Musician

In 1934 Young joined the band of Count Basie, one of the best swing band leaders of the time and an important musician in the Kansas City jazz scene. This connection led to greater fame and a series of recordings. In 1936, Young recorded his first song with Basie, 'Oh, Lady Be Good'. More hits followed, including 'Honeysuckle Rose' in 1937 and 'Twelfth Street Rag' in 1939.

During the 1930s, Young also performed and recorded with blues singer Billie Holiday. They shared an easy musical chemistry and became close friends. Young and Holiday recorded songs that became classics, such as 'He's Funny That Way' and 'Easy Livin.' He nicknamed her 'Lady Day' and she called him 'The President of Jazz' or just 'The Prez.'

Creating a New Sound

Young became known for playing in the higher registers of the tenor sax. His sweet smooth sound resulted in notes that flowed from one to another without harsh or jarring emphasis. Young also had a very creative method of improvisation. He could listen to chords being played around him and come up with a previously unrehearsed and unwritten melody. Unlike many tenor players at the time, who played loud and boisterous with an aggressive edge, Young preferred a softer lyrical style.

Listen to one of his recordings (you can find old videos on YouTube or hear his songs on Pandora). His sound is light and nimble. It floats smoothly above the accompaniment and feels effortless. It's not too loud and it's not aggressive. Young also held his instrument in a different way, high and out to the side rather than straight and close in front of him. In his skill, creativity and style of play, he changed the perception of what the tenor sax could do.

Young also had a personal style all his own, including his always present porkpie hat and double breasted suit. He had his own language and was the original hipster (a person who lives outside the cultural mainstream and is often ahead of their time) before the term was coined. In this context, we mean hipster in its 1940s connotation, which meant indicated a relaxed way of dressing, speaking, and behaving, and might also be referred to as 'hepcat.' Some musicians who played with him even credit him with coining the usage of the word 'cool' as a positive attribute meaning laid back and relaxed.

Lester Young holding his horn high and out, which was his signature style
Lester Young

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