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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.

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