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Lester Leaps In: The Life and Times of Lester “Pres” Young by Douglas Henry Daniels

This book about Lester Young is among the more unusual jazz biographies ever written. Author Douglas Henry Daniels teaches history and black studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara; he’s not a musicologist, jazz historian or critic. Daniels believes that Young, as a musician and personality, has been misunderstood and aims to shed new light on him. Moreover, he “felt obliged to write a sympathetic portrait because I believe it would permit a better understanding of my subject than any other kind of approach.” Well, it’s certainly understandable that Daniels would want to write sympathetically about Young, who was among the greatest jazz artists and seemingly a very likeable, witty human being.

Lester Leaps In took over 20 years to complete, and Daniels obviously put a great deal of work into it, interviewing dozens of people, including Young’s family members, friends and fellow musicians, digging through city directories and combing old newspaper files. He organizes Lester Leaps In chronologically, beginning with his family background.

Young’s musical influence was enormous. He marked the cool, “Four Brothers” style of Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn and Herbie Steward as well as boppers Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons and Wardell Gray, and, through them, many others. Young not only influenced John Coltrane through Gordon, but directly. There is no significant difference of opinion currently as to Young’s musical greatness and huge influence. However, Daniels frequently makes references to slights that Young suffered in the past, such as his rejection by Henderson sidemen and lukewarm reviews of his recordings during the 1940s and ’50s. In doing so, he points out the grief that an innovator can bring on himself. He’s got a point. It may be that the outstanding stuff that Young did as a percentage of his total output declined from 1941 to 1959 compared with his excellent spots with Basie, Billie Holiday and the Kansas City Six in the 1930s, but the best of it was great, especially the ballad work.

However, it is also true that Young’s work above a medium tempo in the ’40s and ’50s then lost litheness, energy, continuity, momentum and inventiveness. I wonder if Daniels noticed this. Even in an admittedly favorable book it’s allowable for a biographer to be critical of his subject. Young’s work in the ’40s and ’50s was uneven. By virtually denying this Daniels appears to be protesting too much. It should be pointed out that the solos Young himself listed as his favorites were all cut from 1936 to 1939.

Music criticism, however, is not Daniels’ strong suit. If he wants to make a point about music he often uses the testimony of a musician for corroboration rather than making it at length himself. Of course, it wasn’t hard to find musicians who were Young sidemen and/or friends to sing his praises.

Daniels is at his best when he’s writing about African-American culture and race relations in this country, and, more particularly, about Young’s family background and personal traits, including his unique and influential style of slang and dress and the mark he made on bohemian culture in the 1940s and ’50s. Describing the America in which Young lived is among Daniels’ major concerns. He discusses racism not only on a national level but locally, as in Woodville. Young had to play in carnivals and minstrel shows, which exposed him to ugly situations and left an indelible impression on him. Young was also brutalized as a member of the armed forces when he was incarcerated for possessing marijuana.

Daniels also writes about relations among the members of bands Young played with, pointing out how some interacted cooperatively, on a one-for-all and all-for-one basis. Young, according to Daniels, dealt with his sidemen fairly and generously as a result of early experiences of this kind.

For the best analyses of Young’s musical achievements readers will have to look beyond Lester Leaps In, but it’s a useful volume if one is primarily interested in Pres as a product of American society and a general influence on its music.

Originally Published