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The year was 1934. It was 4 a.m. at the Cherry Blossom Club, and jazz poured from the sax players faster than liquor at the end of Prohibition.
The Cherry Blossom Club was one of several ritzy nightclubs catering to Kansas City's Black patrons. It was not unusual for the premier jazzmen of the 1930s to carouse there until pale-lipped dawn, caught up in all-night jam sessions. "Kansas City was a beehive of jam sessions" said Basie trumpeter Buck Clayton in his 1986 autobiography, Buck Clayton's Jazz World.
Gene Ramey, bassist for Kansas City's Jay McSchann Orchestra, recalled these after-hours sessions as the ultimate test as players navigated warp-speed tempos, difficult riffs, and enigmatic transpositions designed to "throw [the soloist] off balance."
But this particular session was legendary. Coleman Hawkins was in town.
Before Hawkins shifted the spotlight to the saxophone, jazz was dominated by trumpet soloists like famed Louis Armstrong. Emerging in New Orleans, early jazz instrumentation (trumpet, trombone, clarinet and a rhythm section of guitar or banjo, string bass or tuba, piano and drums) did not even include the saxophone. But under Hawkins, star of New York's Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, the saxophone emerged as a viable jazz instrument.
The master musician was quite aware of the city's legendary jam sessions, and after his show ventured to the Cherry Blossom to put Kansas City's provincial sax stars in their place. By dawn, only four players—Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster and Herschel Evans—remained.
"It seems [Hawkins] had run into something he didn't expect," said Mary Lou Williams, the acclaimed pianist-arranger of Kansas City's Andy Kirk Orchestra, who arrived at the Cherry Blossom to find Hawkins "hung up" by Lester Young. "It took [Young] maybe five choruses to warm up," Williams told historian Ross Russell in Jazz Style in Kansas City and the Southwest. "But then he would really blow, and you couldn't handle him."
Young recast the art of jazz saxophone in the years that followed. Russell describes him as "among the great masters of jazz style" and "the most persuasive in terms of later influence."
In fact, all you have to do is follow the career of this forgotten jazz-great to understand the development of the entire genre. From the Dixieland-style of the 20s, to swing's ascension to America's most popular music, all the way to Charlie Parker's bebop revolution, Lester Young not only followed the music but shaped its future.
Cradled in the Deep South
Lester Willis Young was born in 1909 in Woodville, Mississippi. U.S. Highway 61, the "Blues Highway" of local lore, runs straight through Young's hometown, the old stomping grounds of blues legends Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, as well as contemporary musicians B. B. King, Ike Turner and Sam Cooke. Blues had a major influence on jazz's nascent development, and on Lester.
The music bug had already bitten the Young family.
When Young was still an infant, the family moved 100 miles west to the Crescent City, the birthplace of jazz. Family patriarch Billie Young was an accomplished Tuskegee Institute-trained musician who led a touring ensemble featuring Lester and his siblings. Lester played many instruments including violin, drum, and trumpet.
While no recordings of the band survive, as New Orleans musicians the Young Family Band's jazz repertoire was patterned on the syncopated blend of ragtime and folk blues popularized by 1920s-era stalwarts like Jelly Roll Morton and Joe "King" Oliver.
Meanwhile, Dixieland jazz was growing in popularity due to Louis Armstrong's trumpeting genius. He produced the genre's first coherent, expressive solos, transforming what had largely been a collective music.
For the first time in U.S. history, a Black musical form was also popular with white audiences. Dixieland became the theme music of Roaring Twenties America.
The Young Family Band traveled widely across Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, playing their Dixieland music. They followed the routes of "territory" bands and worked circuses, minstrel and medicine shows, and even parades.
With equal expertise in playing written orchestral music for parades and performing in the syncretic jazz style, Lester was a virtuoso. His ability to synthesize disparate musical influences fed an advanced solo repertoire whose sheer inventiveness placed him beyond his peers.
Next stop: Kansas City
In 1925, 16 year-old Lester left his father's band and the South to break free of both social and musical restrictions. During his stint with the Kansas-based territory band the Bostonians, he picked up the tenor sax as his instrument of choice.
This period marked the beginning of Young's breakthrough as a jazz influencer, as elsewhere in jazz, the saxophone was beginning to vie for the trumpet's throne. Small Dixieland combos became increasingly rivaled by the highly expressive saxophone sections of 10- and 12-instrument jazz orchestras of Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson.
Lester soon found himself on the cutting edge of innovation in America's heartland. Young left the Bostonians Bronson in 1927 to join King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, the New Orleans contingent that skyrocketed Louis Armstrong's career five years earlier. While Oliver adopted a new lineup of three brass, three reeds and four rhythm instruments, the outfit still featured the blues-heavy New Orleans book Lester had played since his youth.
Young craved a challenge, and during his subsequent tenure with the Oklahoma Blue Devils, he met alto sax player "Buster" Smith.
Young quickly discovered his preference for a lighter tone and longer melodic line. The pair practiced together, "doubling up" on old standards, playing at twice the normal tempo. Lester's developing skill in this regard would prove an important portent for the faster tempos and advanced technique that characterized soloing in the soon-to-come bebop era.
Eventually Young landed in the perfect spot to support his musical development— Kansas City.
It was here in the famous 18th and Vine district teeming cabarets, nightclubs, dance halls, and bars where innovative jam sessions flourished. With a small rhythm section provided backing, the sessions required musicians to play chorus after chorus without written music, improvising the entire time. A single number could last as many as two hours.
These musical skirmishes were born in reaction to jazz's continuing stylistic changes. Larger bands were increasingly in vogue, following Henderson's model of music patterned for dancing. This meant fewer solos and increased interplay between full sections. But at Kansas City's after-hours, all-night (and frequently into the next day) "cutting contests," jazzmen displayed their own musical ideas free of convention. And within a year of his arrival, Lester Young was king of them.
"There was nobody who could carve Lester," said trumpeter Buck Clayton, who later teamed with Young in the Basie Orchestra.
"[Lester] could play with such clarity that he would be all alone in his field," Clayton is recorded as saying in Russell's Jazz in Kansas City. "He could run beautiful chords all over his tenor, chords nobody else would even imagine."
Henderson hired the now in demand Young in 1934. His New York-based orchestra was rivaled only by Duke Ellington's.
Traveling on East
With Henderson, Lester was replacing none other than Hawkins himself, who departed for a tour of Europe months after the two met.
Lester began a lifelong friendship with Billie Holiday while in New York. It was Holiday who gave Young his most enduring nickname, "The President.". He dubbed her "Lady Day."
Unfortunately, Lester's musical luck eventually ebbed. The differences between his own style and the Hawkins style-playing of the Henderson musicians were insurmountable.
On Lester's 1936 rendition of "Lady Be Good," listeners can hear Young's high-tempo execution and clear phrasing. After a lilting Basie piano introduction behind a smooth, bluesy rhythm, Young solos over the next several choruses and consistently ratchets up the intensity.
His clear yet throaty and soulful phrases seem to dive about and around the original melodic line and the song's established tempo, creating an exciting new tension. By the 1:11 mark, Lester is executing one of his personal signatures, pounding out a single note quickly at varying speeds—a move faithfully copied for years afterward by nearly every bebop and modernist saxophone player from Charlie Parker to Dexter Gordon to John Coltrane.
In contrast, Hawkins' own version of the same song, recorded in November 1934, largely remains tied to the original established tempo. Though equal in force and skill, his performance lacks the melodic inventiveness that set Young apart from other jazzmen.
Their fundamental difference of approach led Henderson's wife to attempt an intervention by playing Hawkins' records on Young's behalf.
"She'd say, 'Lester can't you play like this?'" Young told French journalist Francois Postif. "Every morning that bitch would wake me up at nine o'clock to teach me to play like Coleman Hawkins!"
The Kansas City Craze
Young returned to Kansas City in late 1934. There he was free to continue his musical development on his own terms, even as swing increasingly became the jazz idiom of choice. These changes would flower fully in the 1940s when Benny Goodman infused elements of Black big-band jazz into his "society" orchestra, bringing a form of authentic jazz to white audiences.
The swing style that became popular during this era appropriated the styles pioneered by Black musicians like Count Basie, Ellington and Henderson, along with other K.C. big bands. But it also imposed unnatural restrictions on artistc creativity. Popularized by mass radio consumption, swing quickly became more commercial. But in the clubs of Kansas City, Lester's skill paved the way for an entirely new school of jazz—bebop.
Kansas City native Charlie "Bird" Parker Jr., the acknowledged father of jazz' bebop revolution, owes much of his style to Young. Not yet of age to enter, the teenage Parker spent countless evenings standing in an alley outside of Kansas City's Reno Club listening to his idol play.
Parker's innovations would take jazz in a new direction in the 1940s with the stylistic transition from big-band swing to small-group bebop. But the complex phrasing, new chord patterns, and ultrafast tempos that came to characterize Parker's style were tricks out of Lester Young's handbook.
Parker's later bebop adaptation of the Young technique is evident in Parker's 1945 recording of "Ko Ko." Parker launches into his solo at 26 seconds in, and beats out a single note in a clear nod to his idol. Throughout, he lays at fast tempos and utilizes a clear direction, authoring phrases unlike any heard before.
Much like Armstrong had done 20 years earlier, Young influenced players outside of his own instrument, as trumpet men like Miles Davis, piano players, and even drummers sought to craft solos that reflected his "cool."
To gauge Young's impact, one need only recognize that earlier jazz forms, including Dixieland and swing have mostly disappeared from the music's landscape. But bebop— the form most directly influenced by Young—remains vital to its successor, modern jazz. Saxophone remains as jazz's primary solo voice nearly 90 years later. "For musicians of the generation before mine, Coleman Hawkins was the one and only model," bebop saxophone star Dexter Gordon told author Sales in Jazz, America's Classical Music. "Lester changed all that. Everybody of my generation listened to Lester and almost no one else."