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Lester Young

Lester Young

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His emotive playing and outsized personality made tenor saxophonist Lester Young, forever known as "Pres," an iconic figure in early jazz. A musical prodigy, he was raised near New Orleans and learned to play sax, trumpet, violin and drums in the family band led by his father. Unwilling to tour the South when Jim Crow laws were in play, he left the band and moved to Kansas City, where his career began taking off. Now concentrating on sax, he joined the Count Basie band and became known for the lightness and smoothness of his tone. He left Basie to replace Coleman Hawkins in Fletcher Henderson's band, but his sound wasn't a good fit there and he was back with Basie in 1936. Now in his late 20's, Young did some of his most celebrated work in the next few years. In addition to Basie sessions he backed up Billie Holiday (who's credited with giving Young his nickname) and Nat King Cole, and played in a celebrated group (with Basie and drummer Jo Jones) known as the Kansas City Seven. Young's lyrical and sophisticated style remained his trademark, as did his creative personal style. Young's mode of dress (double-breasted jackets and pork-pie hit) and way of talking defined him as the original hipster: He...

His emotive playing and outsized personality made tenor saxophonist Lester Young, forever known as "Pres," an iconic figure in early jazz. A musical prodigy, he was raised near New Orleans and learned to play sax, trumpet, violin and drums in the family band led by his father. Unwilling to tour the South when Jim Crow laws were in play, he left the band and moved to Kansas City, where his career began taking off. Now concentrating on sax, he joined the Count Basie band and became known for the lightness and smoothness of his tone. He left Basie to replace Coleman Hawkins in Fletcher Henderson's band, but his sound wasn't a good fit there and he was back with Basie in 1936. Now in his late 20's, Young did some of his most celebrated work in the next few years. In addition to Basie sessions he backed up Billie Holiday (who's credited with giving Young his nickname) and Nat King Cole, and played in a celebrated group (with Basie and drummer Jo Jones) known as the Kansas City Seven. Young's lyrical and sophisticated style remained his trademark, as did his creative personal style. Young's mode of dress (double-breasted jackets and pork-pie hit) and way of talking defined him as the original hipster: He is said to have coined the phrases "That's cool" and "You dig?" Despite his later age (35), Young was drafted into the Army in 1944, as a black soldier he was given regular service instead of being allowed to play for troops. This however didn't last long: Caught with pot and alcohol he was court-martialed, served a year in detention and was dishonorably discharged. This was something of a watershed for Young: After discharge he became a heavier drinker and suffered frequent health problems. Some jazz scholars say his playing also declined, though others find it more expressive if less technically polished. Young still worked prolifically over the next decade, recording as a bandleader and still joining with Cole, Holiday and Basie. In 1946 producer Norman Granz added him to the all-star Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe, with which he'd perform (with other greats including saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Roy Eldridge) over the next twelve years. Their Carnegie Hall recording from 1949 includes the definitive version of "Lester Leaps In," his showpiece that dates back to pre-war days with Basie. Despite escalating health issues and a nervous breakdown Young continued to work in the '50s, touring alongside Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Quartet and maintaining his ties with Basie, including a 1957 reunion at the Newport Jazz Festival. A televised performance with Holiday is said to be his last great moment, their duet on "Fine & Mellow" is an emotionally moving performance that showed their intuitive connection. Now deep into alcoholism, Young collapsed during a European tour and died in 1959. Many tributes followed, the most enduring being Charles Mingus' jazz standard, "Goodbye Pork-Pie Hat."

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CAST: (feature film)

1.
 Bird Now (1987)
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