At 10 o’clock in the morning of Monday 9 November 1936 – an unlikely day and an even unlikelier hour for jazz musicians – five people assembled in the studios of the American Record Corporation in Chicago. They played just four short pieces. Two of them, the first appearance of Lester Young on record, constitute one of the most astonishing debuts in jazz history.
All five men had just played together in Chicago in public three days before as part of a new band organised by Count Basie, then still at the beginning of his long and celebrated career. As well as Basie on piano the studio group included Walter Page on bass, Jo Jones on drums, trumpeter Carl ‘Tatti’ Smith – and Lester Young on tenor saxophone.
Contemporaries marvelled at Lester’s two solos, on ‘Shoe Shine Boy’ and ‘Oh! Lady be Good’. Here was a completely new sound, from a dazzling newcomer. And yet Lester Young had not suddenly sprung fully formed from the head of Zeus. He was already 27 years old. He’d been playing saxophone ever since his father Billy, a musical model but a tyrannical parent, kidnapped him from his beloved mother at the age of ten to join the family dance band that tramped ceaselessly across the southern and mid-western states in search of paying audiences. When this servitude came to an end Lester’s wanderings continued, with only limited success and recognition, until he reached Kansas City. KC was a nerve centre for jazz music. It was strategically placed on the migration path of black workers moving north, and its political and social complexion – the city was in effect run by a pair of mobsters, Tom Pendergast and John Lazia, where prohibition and economic depression were equally ignored – proved hospitable to a musicians and audiences who by nature preferred to be unrestrained.
It was while he was in Kansas City that Lester joined (or rather re-joined) Basie’s band. He also came to the attention of the legendary producer, critic and talent spotter John Hammond, responsible for discovering or promoting Charlie Christian, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and many others. Hammond was determined to record Basie’s musicians, even though Basie himself had been persuaded to sign a prior, hopelessly unprofitable recording contract with Decca. So while the band was in Chicago he arranged for the ARC session. When the records were released on the Vocalion label they were attributed to a non-existent ‘Jones-Smith Incorporated’, to avoid contract problems with Decca.
The two sides on which Lester solos, ‘Shoe Shine Boy’ and ‘Oh! Lady be Good’, sound superficially similar. Both are up-beat and happy tunes, and they follow the same pattern: a lengthy piano introduction by Basie followed by Lester’s solo, and an outing for Tatti Smith’s trumpet before a final chorus. But of the two it’s ‘Oh! Lady be Good’ that fixes itself in your mind and stays in the memory.
The tune was taken from a 1924 stage musical comedy, Lady be Good. It was written by George and Ira Gershwin, its bouncy style at deliberate odds with the faux-bluesy and quintessentially 1920s lyrics:
Listen to my tale of woe,
It’s terribly sad, but true.
All dressed up, no place to go,
Each ev’ning I’m awfully blue.
By 1936 it was a standard: Paul Whiteman played it with his orchestra in 1924, and Jack Hylton and Benny Goodman had also recorded it. In our version there is little left of the original tune, not much more than the opening bar, but it is enough to inspire Basie and Young. A long introduction by Basie, accompanied by soft drums from Jones, sets the tone. Basie was an accomplished stride pianist, but his quiet, spare style, always rhythmical and blues-inflected, is a perfect prelude to Lester’s new (to most) style of tenor playing.
When Lester enters at last after 40 seconds the piece lifts immediately from its smooth taxi down the runway. His tone is light, without being weightless, and his line sinuous without ever losing the drive of the beat set by Basie. The choruses are each thronged with invention and subtle variations of line, (vibrato-less) tone and rhythm. Lester climbs to a brief peak, before dipping his wings slowly towards the earth in the final chorus. But, as Gunther Schuller points out in his detailed analysis of the solo, he rarely moves out of the range of a single octave: the magic is constrained within narrow bounds, and there are no virtuosic or melodramatic swoops and dives. In the bridge passage the key suddenly moves for a time to the major, ‘a startling moment, says Schuller, ‘as if the light has suddenly been switched on or a bright color applied’. Most miraculous of all, behind the abstract elegance of the performance lies a warmth and generosity of feeling that’s always present in Lester’s playing. This may be linked to his constant striving to, in his own words, ‘tell a story’: there’s always a linear push to his music, as there is in his default musical form, the blues.
It’s a wholly confident performance. This is no beginner trying out his skills in a small setting but a master of a new art. Somehow Lester had invented the perfect balance between grace and power, between leading and holding back, between lyrical decoration and propulsive swing (small-group pieces at this time were termed, very appropriately, ‘swing-sing’). The swing, it should be said, is greatly helped by the economical, clipped drumwork of Jo Jones, the greatest of the jazz drummers of his age.
The light fluidity of this style of playing struck Lester’s listeners as novel. The dominant jazz tenorist of the age – indeed, he could be said to have established the tenor as a leading instrument – was Coleman Hawkins. His style, followed by a host of imitators, was full-bodied, using the whole capacity of the instrument to produce a wide range of sounds, and it had what was called ‘edge’: it could be assertive, even aggressive. Lester’s more classical sound was very different. The contrast is encapsulated in a conversation recalled by Billie Holiday between Lester and his fellow-tenorist in Basie’s band, Herschel Evans:
Herschel: ‘Why don’t you buy an alto, man? You only got an alto tone!’
Lester (tapping his forehead): ‘There’s things goin’ on up there, man. Some of you guys are all belly’.
It’s tempting to link Lester’s style with his personality. He was a famously reticent and unassertive person – one reason why his later attempts at band formation and leading were unsuccessful – and detested ostentation and loudness. Maybe for that reason he felt just as comfortable accompanying a fellow genius, as he did famously with Billie Holiday between 1937 and 1940, as he did ‘grandstanding’ himself.
Lester’s solo lasts just 80 seconds. In one way this is frustrating. We know from descriptions of his live performances and jam sessions that his invention knew no bounds and that he could take a tune for as long a walk as he wished. On the other hand, the three-minute limit set by the 78rpm record freezes his performance like a jewel, a bright and perfect thing.
At the end of the solo Tatti Smith takes over. Smith was a competent enough trumpeter but his playing is pedestrian rather than airborne. The record loses for a time some of its drive and shine before Basie returns, superbly matched by Page’s bass, which then walks us down step-wise towards an inescapable chorus – itself a recapitulation of Lester’s solo in its perfect mix of power and art.
There’s a case for arguing that Lester never bettered ‘Oh! Lady be Good’. His later years, though fogged by alcohol and drugs, show much intermittent brilliance (this is the period in which Geoff Dyer sets the chapter on Lester in his fine reimagination But beautiful: a book about jazz). No one would want to be without the duets with Billie Holiday. And it’s true that Lester later added a huskier, more contemplative tone not present in his earlier records. Still, there’s nothing more thrilling than putting ‘Oh Lady by Good!’ on for the hundredth time. And there’s certainly nothing, to quote a word apparently first used in this sense by Lester Young, more ‘cool’ to listen to.
Books. The best short introduction to Lester Young is Dave Gelly’s Being Prez: the life and music of Lester Young (London: Equinox, 2007). Douglas Henry Daniels’s massive Lester leaps in: the life and times of Lester Young (Boston: Beacon, 2002) is strong on biographical detail but disappointing on the music.
Recordings. The Properbox collection of four CDs The Lester Young story (2000) gives a fine overview of the recordings and includes ‘Oh! Lady be Good’. A musical romance (Columbia, 2002) offers the best selection of the Billie Holiday/Lester Young sides.