Being Prez: The Life and Music of Lester Young
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Lester Young was one of the great jazz masters, and his impact on the course of the art form was profound. He fundamentally changed the way the saxophone was played--his long, flowing lines brought new levels of expressiveness and subtlety to the jazz language, setting the standard for all modern players.
In Being Prez, renowned British critic Dave Gelly follows Lester Young through his life in a rapidly changing world, showing how the music of this exceptionally sensitive man was shaped by his experiences. The reader meets a complicated, vulnerable, gentle individual who was brought up in his father's traveling carnival band. His early career was spent in the nightclubs and dancehalls of Kansas City and the Southwest, and he made his landmark recording debut at the peak of the Swing Era. But at the height of his powers, he was drafted into the US Army, where racism and his own unworldliness landed him in military prison. Following these events, Young grew increasingly withdrawn and suspicious, changes in his character reflected in the darkening mood of his music. Gelly, himself a jazz saxophonist, examines many of Young's classic recordings in illuminating detail. He reveals how as a saxophonist--and as major contributor to the Count Basie band--Young created a strong personal voice, a cool modernism, and a new rhythmic flexibility in the freely dancing rhythms of 4-beat swing.
With his sax jutting oddly to one side, his bizarre oblique use of language, and his unique musical rapport with Billie Holiday (who famously nicknamed him "Prez"), Lester Young has become an icon and a cult figure. This marvelous biography illuminates the life and work of this giant of jazz.
full band has not played a note yet. The brass and saxophone sections come in for just two choruses, mainly superimposed riffs, with an eight-bar passage for the rhythm section and another for Buck Clayton, and the piece ends. Constrained within the three-minute confines of a ten-inch disc, ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ may come across as somewhat desultory, but a structure as open-ended as this would have been perfect for a place like the Reno Club. One can imagine it going on indefinitely, with solos
proved a remarkably unselfish leader, handing Lester a large share of the limelight. On the rare occasions in later life when he mentioned his tenure with Sears, Lester was non-committal, but he must have been reasonably content because he remained with the band until it broke up at the end of the tour, on 30 September 1943. Back in New York, he resumed his regular round of jam sessions, only to be called back temporarily into the Basie ranks to cover for an ailing Don Byas. Basie was currently
Stand) A Ghost Of A Chance (With You)’, probably helps explain how Lester came to choose it. There is also the fact that the whole harmonic flavour of the piece is dominated by the chord of the augmented fifth, which occurs five times in the course of its thirty-two-bar chorus, the chord whose plaintive uncertainty he had always found attractive. Lester dwells on the chord, unambiguously spreading it out, sometimes with a hovering ninth for good measure. The whole centre of gravity is low, rising
(‘Blue Lester’, ‘Indiana’ and ‘Jump Lester Jump’) are considerably more energetic. Lester’s fluency, sharpened by the instinctive rapport between himself and Basie, is as beguiling as ever. The Blue Room engagement ended on 31 May; the band moved on to a string of dates in New England and the extra-curricular small-band sessions ceased. One cannot help wondering what people around the country made of Prez. His distinctive presence is nicely described by Whitney Balliett: He had protruding,
however charming. He set a trap for Lester. He wrote out a passage on a blackboard then played it over, with several departures from the written notes. Lester reproduced what he had just heard, not what was on the board, and the cat was out of the bag. As a punishment, he was banished from the band until he had learned to read. The humiliation was particularly bitter because people had begun to treat him as something special, a little star in the making. (‘How did he learn to play all that