Lester “Pres” Young passed 60 years ago, but he is still considered a true jazz giant. The Mississippi-born saxophonist’s birthday is August 27, 1909.
Young grew up in New Orleans and by the time he was in his teens, he’d joined his father’s vaudeville band. At 18, Young left the band because he refused to tour in the racist environment of the Jim Crow south.
After arriving to Kansas City, Mo. in the early ‘30s, Young joined a few of the local bands in the region but found his footing with Count Basie’s Orchestra. He stood out in the band because of his reserved playing style, and his colorful use of language. Some Jazz historians say that Young was responsible for the use of the word “cool” and using the term “bread” for money, informing the laid back speaking style employed by other jazz musicians.
Young traveled with Count Basie to New York, eventually leaving the band to find his next adventure. He was productive while in New York working with Billie Holiday, who was said to have given him the nickname “Pres” and reportedly in turn, he gave the songstress the nickname “Lady Day.”
The Swing style was where Young cut his teeth but in interviews, he expressed that he didn’t enjoy playing in large ensembles like Basie’s as it clashed with his quieter style. Young’s work inspired other legendary saxophone players such as Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins, among others.
As with many jazz musicians of his era, Young struggled with drinking later in his career, passing at the young age of 49 due to complications related to alcohol. Charles Mingus and Wayne Shorter both composed tribute songs in his honor, speaking to the scope of his influence.
PHOTO: Library of Congress/Public Domain