Tenor saxophonist Lester Young (1909-1959) was one of the most vital forces in the history of jazz. His seductively relaxed style, rife with melodic and rhythm surprise, was considered revolutionary when he came to international prominence in the late 1930s as a member of the Count Basie Orchestra and through his numerous recordings with Billie Holiday. (She dubbed him “Prez,” for president; he tagged her “Lady Day.”) Young’s innovative approach to improvisation supplied a key evolutionary link between the earlier jazz of Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins and the bop movement of the Forties.
Born in Woodville, Mississippi and raised in Algiers, Louisiana, Young began playing drums as a boy in a family band led by his multi-instrumentalist father. Young took up alto saxophone as a teenager and was strongly influenced by the recordings of C-melody saxophonist Frank Trumbauer. Prior to becoming a regular member of the Basie band in 1936, Young did stints with Walter Page, King Oliver, Fletcher Henderson, Andy Kirk, and others. With Basie, he split tenor solo duties with Herschel Evans, then with Buddy Tate. Young left Basie in 1940 and returned briefly in 1943. For the remainder of his career he led his own combos, appeared as a soloist with pickup rhythm sections, or toured as a member of Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic.
Young’s influence can be felt in the work of countless tenor saxophonists—Stan Getz, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, and Paul Quinichette, among them—as well as such alto players as Paul Desmond and Art Pepper and even blues guitarist B.B. King. Indeed, as Martin Williams has written, “He created a new aesthetic, not only on the tenor saxophone but on all jazz.”