Lester Young passed away 60 years ago, on March 15, 1959. He was one of the most profound figures of genius to ever grace the music world. His eccentricities alone were earthshaking, from his love of porkpie hats to his skewed playing stance to his self-invented slang (from which we probably get the term “cool”). It’s the music, though, that continues to resonate the most, much of it still as contemporary today as it was in the 1930s, when Young was at his peak. It’s never a bad time to revisit his body of work, but this anniversary provides a convenient occasion. (Note that this list is chronological. There is no nitpicking a rank for this kind of greatness.)
1. Jones-Smith, Incorporated: “Shoe Shine Boy” (Lester Young with Count Basie: The Columbia, Okeh & Vocalion Sessions [1936-1940] Vol. 1, Columbia/Legacy, 2008 [originally recorded Nov. 9, 1936])
The very first recording of Lester Young was already a masterpiece. The tenor saxophone world belonged in 1936 to Coleman Hawkins, he of the intricate, heavy, deadly serious sound that bore down like a dreadnought. In that context, the effect of Young’s effervescent tone, seeming as it did to float over the rollicking rhythmic momentum of Count Basie, Freddie Green, Walter Page, and Jo Jones, is impossible to understate. Likewise for a line that, if it wasn’t as complex as Hawk’s, was nearly delirious in its bounce. It also sounds spontaneous throughout, even in the obviously prearranged hit on the accents with Jones (though not so prearranged that Jones doesn’t fluff a beat). Not incidentally, King Coleman was off conquering Europe at the time; in his absence, “Shoe Shine Boy” served as Young’s formal challenge for the crown.