Sunday Jazz: Happy birthday Lester Young

Lester Young

Lester YoungYesterday was the 102nd birthday of saxophone immortal Lester “Pres/Prez” Young who was born in 1909 in Woodville, Mississippi. His contributions to jazz are immeasurable, and his story is typically tragic. Young was in the grip of alcoholism for the last years of his relatively brief life, and he died at the age of 49 on March 15, 1959.

Prez’s lyrical and relatively subdued sound is cited as a major influence of not only later players like Charlie Parker and Stan Getz, but of the entire Cool/West Coast Jazz sound. His pre-World War II recordings tend to have a little more fire in them, but there is plenty worth hearing from his late ’40/early ’50s period as well. The notion that Young’s experience in the U.S. Army robbed him of his ability has by now been thoroughly debunked.

The first cut I’m offering today is from that oft-maligned post-War period — it’s “Tea for Two,” performed by Young with the Oscar Peterson Trio (the pianist himself is joined by Barney Kessel on guitar, Ray Brown on bass, and J.C. Heard on drums). This song provides ample evidence that at least as late as 1952, Young could still swing and deliver melodic genius with ease.

(enjoy “Tea for Two” from Lester Young with the Oscar Peterson Trio)

The second song for your listening enjoyment dates much earlier. It’s from a September 1938 session by the Kansas City Six, a group straight out of the Count Basie Orchestra — bassist Walter Page, drummer Jo Jones, and rhythm guitarist Freddie Green (who also sings on this track), with a frontline of Young on sax, trumpeter Buck Clayton, and guitarist/trombonist Eddie Durham. Due to the conventions of the era, Young’s solo is relatively brief but still worth hearing.

(enjoy “Them There Eyes (Take 2)” from The “Kansas City” Sessions)

(Spotify users — you can listen to these and other featured Sunday Jazz songs by subscribing to my GFS Sunday Jazz playlist.)

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