In the history of the great jazz men of the 20th century, one could wax endlessly on the players who graced the stand with the likes of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Leaders at the very top of their game, both the Duke and the Count were able to not only pick the best to join them but also cultivated orchestras that brought out the best in the musicians.
Think about it for a moment. They played non-stop. They toured at length and when they weren’t on the road they were in recording studios or sitting in for an evening with someone else’s group in a smoky nightclub. Those cats were blowin’ man!
Lester Young, nicknamed “Prez”, was born in Mississippi in 1909 but by the early thirties had settled in Kansas City. KC was a hot bed of jazz and Count Basie, a NJ native, had set up shop there after being in Bennie Moten’s band and Prez eventually landed in the tenor sax chair in the Count’s orchestra from 1933 to 1940.
A wonderful photo of Prez blowing hot while the Count listens
After leaving Basie in 1940 (legend is that he refused to play on Friday the 13th and was sacked but I find that hard to believe) Young set out on his own. He led a few small groups and backed up Billie Holiday occasion on a few studio dates. If you’re looking for a great album from this period, check out “A Musical Romance” – Billie Holiday and Lester Young. A true gem.
I’ve read where he also worked with the great Nat King Cole on some of Cole’s early jazz combo work but I’ll need to research that a bit more.
Bille and Prez
Prez was drafted into the Army for the Second World War and unlike many of the white musicians, he wasn’t assigned to a band unit (like Glenn Miller’s or Artie Shaw’s) but was among the enlisted where sax playing was not permitted. He landed in military jail on a one-year drug sentence and was dishonorably discharged. Following his Army years his drinking increased steadily and began to interfere with his ability to stay in a group or meet recording dates.
Prez style had begun to change to a more emotional approach to phrasing before the war and continued to do so afterwards. Although he struggled with alcohol his post-war recordings are considered among hs finest.
He sat in with his old boss, Count Basie, every now and then including the now legendary performances Basie had at the Newport Jazz Festival in July 1957.
Prez in a nameless hotel room..someplace.
He continued to perform and, sad to say, his final years have been characterized as simply that “he drank himself to death”. He passed at the age of 49. In a taxi on the way to his funeral, Billie Holiday commented to critic Leonard Feather “I’ll be the next one to go.”. She died 4 months later at the age of 44.
The quintessential photo of Prez outside The Five Spot, NYC (1958)