August 26, 2009

PREZCENTENNIAL:

Lester Young Turns 100: Billie Holiday’s favorite musician, jazz great Lester “Prez” Young brought a hip, freewheeling sensibility to his saxophone playing (Jamie Katz, August 25, 2009, Smithsonian.com)

He was known for speaking a private language, some of which has entered the American lexicon. The expression “that’s cool” was probably coined by him, as were “bread” (for money), “You dig?” and such colorful sayings as “I feel a draft”—code for prejudice and hostility in the air. He also wore sunglasses in nightclubs, sported a crushed black porkpie hat and tilted his saxophone at a high angle “like a canoeist about to plunge his paddle into the water,” as the New Yorker’s Whitney Balliett put it. Rolling Stone later pronounced Prez “quite likely the hippest dude that ever lived.”

Young’s impact on the language of music was even greater. Before tenorman Coleman Hawkins led the emergence of the saxophone as a serious instrument in the 1920s, most sax players “habitually produced either a kind of rubbery belch or a low, mooing noise,” wrote Young biographer Dave Gelly. Young came along right behind Hawkins, and electrified the jazz world with his dexterity and imagination.

“He redefined the instrument,” says the tenor saxophonist and jazz scholar Loren Schoenberg, who is also executive director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem (a Smithsonian affiliate). His most fundamental change involved a subtle relaxation of jazz phrasing and rhythm. “A lot of lesser players depend on the friction of a spiky rhythm to make it seem as if it’s ‘hot,’ ” Schoenberg says. “Young found a way to play that had a more even rhythm, and yet he swung like crazy. This called for great ingenuity and great genius.”

Young mastered the art of improvising beautiful melodies, which he played with a velvety tone and an effortless, floating quality. Yet like a great dancer, he never lost sight of the beat. A bluesman at heart, he could swoop and moan and play with edge, but more typically, the sensation was one of “pulsating ease,” as critic Nat Hentoff once described it. At slower tempos, he radiated a more wistful, bruised spirit. “In all of Lester Young’s finest solos,” Albert Murray writes in his classic study, Stomping the Blues, “there are overtones of unsentimental sadness that suggest he was never unmindful of human vulnerability.”


To the untrained ear what stands out is his fluidity, though, to my mind at least, the transition of jazz from dance halls to night clubs killed it.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 26, 2009 8:29 AM
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