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Being Prez: The Life & Music of Lester Young by Dave Gelly

The Lester Young story has been sorted out, fully analyzed and solidified through the years in such books as Frank Buchmann-Moller’s You Just Fight for Your Life, Lewis Porter’s Lester Young and Douglas Henry Daniels’ Lester Leaps In. Born in Woodville, Miss., in 1909, Young spent a few years growing up in New Orleans, was taught music by his father, and performed with the Young Family Band in the Midwest. Starting as a drummer, Young switched to alto saxophone as a teenager and eventually to tenor. His sound and style on the tenor were innovative, being much more influenced by C-melody saxophonist Frank Trumbauer than by the first king of the tenor, Coleman Hawkins.

Hawkins had a giant, full and heavy tone while Young’s was light and floating. While Hawkins was harmonically sophisticated and much more predictable rhythmically, Young was the opposite, often implying more than he stated and creating speechlike improvisations that were the epitome of cool. Young suffered for a time due to his unique style, particularly during his short stint as Hawkins’ successor with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, but he found a perfect outlet with Count Basie. Many musicians and fans consider Young’s Basie recordings and his playing with Billie Holiday, both from the second half of the 1930s, to be near-perfect.

After leaving Basie, Young had a few aimless years before rejoining Basie’s orchestra in 1943. The following year his life fell apart when the draft board caught up with him, resulting in a hellish period in the military. After his dishonorable discharge, Young returned to the jazz world, a bit broken in spirit but actually playing at the peak of his powers for a time. He remained vital and an increasingly influential figure despite his erratic health, up until the time of his 1959 death.

Dave Gelly’s Lester Young biography essentially consolidates what is already known and accepted about the tenor rather than digging up new information. Gelly writes in an accessible and highly readable style. He does a particularly good job of discussing Young’s unheard early years (he did not record until he was 27) and is evenhanded about Young’s postwar work, rejecting the stereotype that the tenor immediately declined after his experiences in the military. Even a cursory listen to Young’s 1950s recordings with Teddy Wilson, the Oscar Peterson Trio and the pickup group called Jazz Giants ’56 shows that he remained capable of greatness up until near the end.

Young’s later years were full of contradictions. He easily surpassed his old rival Coleman Hawkins in his influence on younger saxophonists, yet felt that it was quite unfair that his followers seemed to be making much more money than he was. Thanks to producer Norman Granz, Young was actually much more prosperous during the 1950s than in previous decades, yet a sadness pervaded much of his music and he was regularly depressed, despite the acclaim he received in the jazz world. Instead of taking advantage of his fame, he stopped eating in 1959 and essentially drank himself to death.

Avoiding amateur psychology to explain Young’s physical and emotional decline, Gelly sticks to the known facts and consistently shows why Young’s music is significant and his story worth knowing. While veteran fans will find little new in Being Prez, Gelly’s work (which includes a selective discography of his CDs) serves as an excellent introduction to the world of Lester Young.

Originally Published