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Lester Young Community Radio, September 19, 2010

The show's theme today, as my title suggests, was the music of Lester Young. But before we get around to Mr. Pork Pie Hat, let me tell you what else I played:

A couple of versions of Don Cherry's "Race Face," the original by Don Cherry and Bobo Stenson's cover; a couple of tunes by the Sonora Ponceña, a couple of truck driving songs, and etc.

But let's get down to business: Lester Young.



One of the great tenor saxophone players. He made a name for himself playing with the Basie band in the thirties. In the early thirties, the band was based in wild Kansas City, where you could drink (prohibition or no prohibition), find other substances, gamble, hear great jazz, engage the services of love professionals.

Pianist Mary Lou Williams, who was in K.C. in those days, writes about Coleman Hawkins’ visit to Kansas City in the mid thirties. Word got around and all the young guns (Lester Young foremost among them) showed to jam with the master:

“Around 4 A.M. I woke to hear someone pecking on my screen. I opened the window on Ben Webster. He was saying: ‘Get up, pussycat, we’re jammin’ and all the pianists are tired out now. Hawkins has got his shirt off and is still blowing. You got to come down.’ Sure enough, when we got there Hawkins was in his singlet taking turns with the Kaycee men. It seems he had run into something he didn’t expect.

“Lester’s style was light and, as I said, it took him maybe five choruses to warm up. But then he would really blow; then you couldn’t handle him on a cutting session. That was how Hawkins got hung up. The Henderson band was playing in St. Louis that evening, and Bean knew he ought to be on the way. But he kept trying to blow something to beat Ben [Webster] and Hershel [Evans] and Lester. When at last he gave up, he got straight in his car and drove to St. Louis. I heard he’d just bought a new Cadillac and that he burnt it out trying to make it to the job on time. Yes, Hawkins was king until he met those crazy Kansas City tenormen.”

Hawkins got his revenge, though, as Rex Stewart tell us:

“When Coleman Hawkins returned to his Harlem stomping grounds in 1939, after several years’ absence in Europe, he was more than mildly concerned about whether the cats had caught up with him, as he put it. At that time all the hippies hung out in … Nightsie Johnson’s joint … on 131st Street.. Sunrise usually found the place filled with the cream of the entertainment … chiefly Billie Holiday, who, by her presence … gave the impression that she owned the after-hours spot.

[…]

Hawk fell in about 3:00 or 4:00 A.M. without his instrument and just sat and sipped, listening until the last toot was tooted. All the cats paraded their wares before him because he was the big man – Hawkins had become king of the tenor saxes when he recorded ‘One Hour’ and ‘Hello, Lola’ … in 1929. They vied for his attention just in case he decided to start a band or had a record date on the fire – that was the talk of the assorted horn players: trumpets, trombones, and alto saxes.

“But the tenor saxophonists had other ideas; they wanted to gain prestige by outplaying the master. They reasoned that Coleman had been away from the source too long to know the hot licks that Harlem was putting down now. But what they’d forgotten was that Bean was a creative source within himself, an innovator rather than a copier. And I guess that most of the men were simply too young to realize what an old fox Coleman Hawkins was.

“In any case, Hawk frequented the pad nightly for several weeks, and every time he was asked to play, he’d have another new excuse – he was resting from the constant grind of touring in Europe, his horn was in pawn, he had a toothache, or he just couldn’t bring himself to play in front of all these tenor giants. Fellows like Lester Young, Don Byas, Chu Berry, and many less talents were all itching to get a piece of the Hawk – especially Lester, whose staunchest fan was Billie Holiday.

“One night Billie brought the personal element into focus by ‘signifying,’ which in Harlemese means making a series of pointed but oblique remarks apparently addressed to no one in particular, but unmistakable in intention in such a close-knit circle.

“When Hawk ignored her, she proceded to bring her opinions out into the open, saying that HER man .. was the only tenor saxophone in the world, the one and only Pres, Lester Young, and it really wasn’t any use for any tired old man to try and blow against her President.

“Hawk took Lady Day’s caustic remarks as a big joke, but apparently he’d previously decided that this was the night to make his move. Up to the last minute, the old fox played it cool, waiting until Billie’s juice told her it was time for her to sing some blues. Then he slipped out, returning with his saxophone, and started to accompany Billie’s blues, softly. Billie, hearing his sound, looked up, startled, and then motioned to Pres, as if to say, ‘Take charge.’

“So Lester began blowing the blues, and to give credit where credit is due, he really PLAYED, chorus after chorus, until finally Hawk burst in on one of his choruses, virtually overpowering Lester’s more haunting approach. When Hawk finished off the blues, soaring, searing, and lifting the entire house with his guttural, positive sonority, every tub began cheering, with the exception of Lady Day, Lester, and her pet boxer, Mister. They, like the Arabs, folded their tents and stole away.”

Nice.

Anyway, some jazz heads think that Lester Young’s playing in his later years lacks the magic of his early recordings, such as those he made with the Basie band. Here’s what Graham Colombé had to say:

“This mature tragic awareness is what distinguishes Lester in the fifties from Lester in the thirties, and with the advantage of hindsight it's easy to understand how the magical, buoyant optimism of the early years could not last, given the man Lester was and the society he lived in."

Here’s Ted Barron:

“Lester Young, a touring musician in his prime, at the age of thirty-five was pretty much plucked off the bandstand during a three month engagement at a club in Watts by an undercover agent in a Zoot Suit, and forced to enlist in the Army in the waning days of World War II. Lester--who in addition to being past the prime age of a soldier, was a chronic alcoholic, epileptic and syphilitic, spoke in a strange tone and language of his own design, walked on tippy-toes and was by nature a pacifist--was clearly not fit to serve in the Army.

Uncle Sam and the draft board thought otherwise.

“After injuring himself during assault training and spending a short time in an Army hospital, Lester was examined by an Army psychologist, who deemed him to be in a "constitutional psychopathic state manifested by drug addiction (marijauna, barbituates), chronic alcoholism and nomadism" In short, he a was a touring Jazz musician, and in this case, an eccentric genius who was on a very short list of the greatest soloists in American music.

“Things, however, went from bad to worse and after a series of events, Lester was court-martialed and spent the duration of WWII in detention barracks in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and eventually in the deep south at Camp Gordon in Georgia, another place which he clearly was not fit to be.

“Dave Gelly writes in his excellent book, Being Prez: The Life and Music of Lester Young, "He rarely spoke about it, beyond describing it as 'one mad nightmare.' One can only imagine what torture it was for him, a soft, slow moving man, condemned to a world where everyone shouted and all movement had to be at the double. It is said he was beaten up on several occasions, either by white guards or black fellow- prisoners." Lester was incarcerated until late 1945, and upon release came out swinging, yet, a changed man. He returned to Los Angeles, where he began recording again for Philo/Aladdin and eventually in the early fifties for Mercury, under the supervision of Norman Granz.

“These late recordings, in my opinion … are some of the most beautiful things ever committed to wax, and especially in his ballads, in particularly, "These Foolish Things" for Aladdin and "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," for Mercury (featured below) there's a far greater emotional depth than in his earlier recordings. They are among the few things in music that can actually bring me to tears, and are the recordings of a man embarking on a difficult and final decade of a life lived in music. It's the last stop for a mature and seasoned artist, whose life is slowly slipping away from him. By the end of the fifties he'll be dead."

I finished the tribute to Lester Young with Mingus's haunting "Goodbye, Pork-Pie Hat," written when Mingus learned of Young's death.

Sources:

1. Robert Gottlieb, Reading Jazz.

2. Ted Barron's blog, Boogie Woogie Flu.

*******

I closed the show with a tribute to Ishaan, a young man, the son of a relative of a friend, who tragically died recently in California. He was a brilliant youngster, whom I once met, and he liked jazz. His favorite song was "Watermelon Man." I played it for him.

Catamount Community Radio, on WWCU-FM, Sunday mornings from 10-12, eastern time. Tune the hell in, dude.

1. Lester Young & Oscar Peterson – Stardust
2. Abdullah Ibrahim – Easy Living
3. Peggy Lee – Black Coffee
4. Randy Newman – Marie
5. Lester Young – Three Little Words
6. Stan Getz – Three Little Words
7. Sonny Rollins – Three Little Words
8. Sonny Boy Williamson – Help Me
9. k.d. lang – Help Me
10. Count Basie – Jive at Five
11. Coleman Hawkins – Bouncin’ with Bean
12. Lester Young – Way Down Yonder in New Orleans
13. Billie Holiday – When You’re Smiling
14. La Sonora Ponceña – Night in Tunisia
15. Bruce Springsteen – The E Street Shuffle
16. Duke Ellington – Caravan
17. John Coltrane – Bessie’s Blues
18. Don Cherry – Race Face
19. Count Basie – Lester Leaps In
20. Lester Young – Polka Dots and Moonbeams
21. Lester Young – I’ve Found a New Baby
22. Charles Mingus – Good Bye, Pork Pie Hat
23. Sonora Ponceña – Woody’s Blue
24. Junior Brown – Semi-Crazy
25. Commander Cody – I Took Three Bennies (and my Semi Truck won’t Start)
26. Bobo Stenson – Race Face
27. Stevie Wonder – So What the Fuss
28. Herbie Hancock – Watermelon Man


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