Lester Young on WKCR
posted: August 12, 2009

This month marks the centennial of the saxophonist Lester Young. His music is filled with the vitality and sadness of life; he influenced countless musicians, was Billie Holiday’s favorite musician and contributed as much to the spirit of American life as any artist you can think of.

Nicknamed “Prez,” Young was a gentle and soulful man who had a way of expressing himself through words that was as creative and influential as his music. He called his friends “ladies,” coined the term “cool,” and once, after seeing a fellow patron at a bar fall off a stool asked the bartender for “whatever he was having.” Prez left a jazz club one night after being spotted sitting in back listening to the music because he didn’t “dig being dug while I’m digging.”

WKCR is celebrating by playing a lot of Lester Young all this month. My friend, Phil Schaap is devoting his Monday and Saturday shows to Prez and on his birthday, August 27th, there will be 24 hours of Lester Young. Actually, it will be a three-day festival combined with Charlie Parker’s birthday on August 29th

Here's the portrait of Prez from the book I did with Wynton Marsalis  Jazz ABZ.  Young played with The Count Basie Band in Kansas City in the early days. I read that the Reno Club was so small the bass player stood outside in the alley and leaned in a window to play. John Hammond heard the band on a tiny short-wave radio station and drove all night from Chicago to sign Basie to a recording contract.

One for Victor

Victor Juhasz August 12, 2009
Let me be the first to add a comment here and thank you for posting about Prez, Bird, and the WKCR festival at the end of this month. It's always been one of my favorite festivals on that great station. Phil can be obsessive and go on a bit, but he remains a living scholar/encyclopedia of this art form. Beautiful sensitive drawing of Prez and your book with Wynton is beautiful. One of my favorite photos of Lester is with Roy Eldridge and it was the cover for the album, LAUGHING TO KEEP FROM CRYING. It's an absolutely beautiful, touching shot of two wonderful souls sharing an intimate but hearty laugh.
Harry August 12, 2009
That's going to be three days of some great music. Thanks for bringing to our attention. Great drawing.
Doug Fraser August 12, 2009
Classin' up the place again eh? Mister Rogers.
Victor Juhasz August 12, 2009
Alan Witschonke August 12, 2009
I heard that Prez died in a hotel room overlooking a jazz club with Stan Getz's name in bright lights on the marquee. Some say Getz copied Prez's cool style of playing and got his fame and fortune because of it, while Prez passed away penniless. I'll have to stream that radio station.
Victor Juhasz August 12, 2009
Alan, If I am correct, Prez had a house on Long Island. He was seriously sick on a flight back from Paris and essentially checked into the hotel after arriving in New York where he died. I don't think he was broke. Phil would know, right Paul?
Paul Rogers August 12, 2009
There's a lot of stories about Prez's life and a much of it is sad. He did have a house on Long Island, but at the end of his life he checked into the Alvin Hotel across from Birdland, didn't eat much and drank a lot. Some of his friends felt he wanted to die and he spent about a year doing just that. Many players used Lester's style as a way to find their own voice. Prez said to Buddy Tate he thought "a lot of the ladies were playing me and making the money." But I don't think it was a lack of money that ended Young's life. He still played a bit in his final days and he died shortly after returning to NYC from a gig in Paris.
Alan Witschonke August 12, 2009
It might be more urban legend than fact. But it's true that Getz was heavily influenced by Lester Young and was able to reap many more rewards than Prez.
Victor Juhasz August 13, 2009
Buddy once told me that Benny Goodman liked Lester's clarinet playing a great deal and gave him one of his own. Apparently someone swiped it and it was one of those events that Lester never really got over. His life is a sad story on one level because he didn't have a mean bone in his body- totally unprepared for the cruel, racist treatment he received in the Army and that definitely affected him. Buddy also said that the only person Prez ever hurt in his life was himself. Phil plays that last interview with Lester in Paris right before he returns home for the last time.
Leo Espinosa August 13, 2009
Lester in gray scale is soooo good!
Kyle T Webster August 13, 2009
Love the scale-play with the skinny, small feet and the big, important hand in the greyscale drawing. Awesome, Paul.
Tim OBrien August 14, 2009
Very hep and cool.
Robert Saunders August 14, 2009
Delightful drawing, Paul. And I enjoyed listening to you guys' debate on the circumstances of Young's passing. 626 564 8728