Saturday, August 29, 2009

Prez at 100

Lester Young's centennial was this week. With a little help from Ethan Iverson, who wrote a ten piece essay/interview/commentary complete with multipe transcriptions I've been thinking myself of Prez and how he has shaped the saxophone and improvisation.

As with my discovery of a lot of early players, I arrived at Lester Young through his disciples, principally Stan Getz, who was the first tenor player I ever listened to as a kid. Funny enough, I remember thinking Getz had a clunky sound on tenor, lacking the sheen and edge that the alto players I had been listening to had, namely Bird, Cannonball, and Phil Woods. I was seduced by his melodicism pretty quickly though (maybe it was our common Russian-Jewish ancestry) and could sing every solo on that two CD-set Best of the Verve Years by high school. Of course, you can't read anything about Getz (or Al Cohn or Zoot Sims) without mention of Lester Young's influence.

Eventually (I'm pretty sure through the old BMG music subscription service) I got The President Plays - Lester Young with the Oscar Peterson Trio, recorded in 1952. Having already heard a little bit of Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins at this point, I could immediately tell that Getz and company got their sound from Young, but Young was not at his peak on his later recordings, and especially paled next to Oscar Peterson's virtuosity to a young listener. (Knowing Young's earlier work and the arc of his life and career to some extent now I can hear the beauty of these later recordings, but you're not hearing the player who shaped jazz to come on these recordings).

Unlike a lot of my peers, I was never particularly lured by the sound of big bands as a kid, and it was thus much later that I got the early Basie recordings where Lester really made his mark. It wouldn't be until late in college that I really heard Young's brilliance on the early Basie recordings and learned some of the pivotal solos, like Shoe Shine Boy, Lady Be Good and Blue Lester. His conception of the instrument and his lines are so different, especially when you consider the prevalent approaches of the time. There is such a cool, relaxed sense of swing, such a light and even sound on the instrument, and such an understated sense of melody. These qualities were never lost at fast tempos or shadowed by Young's virtuosity as a player. There is so much great vocabulary in the concise solos from this period. These aren't bebop lines, but nor are they the vertical approach that dominated pre-bebop. They're just pure melody, mostly diatonic, and a lot of rhythm.

For those who may not have a lot of this material, there's a great compilation on the Living Era label with 24 of Young's greatest tracks that you can get on Amazon here. Listening to this material again now, it's impossible not to hear just how pervasive Young's influence has been on so many of my favorite players, a very short list including the obvious Getz, Zoot Sims, and Al Cohn, but also Bird (there is an MP3 on Iverson's post of Bird quoting Shoe Shine Boy verbatim while playing tenor that I had never heard), Art Pepper, Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Coltrane, Hank Mobley, Joe Henderson, Miles Davis, Kenny Dorham... the list goes on and on.

You can't talk about Young without remembering one of the most unique personalities in jazz. Here's an interview with Tootie Heath from Iverson's post:

I was about 19 or 20 when Lester came to Philadelphia a few times a year. We were the house band at the Showboat: me, Jimmy Bond on bass, and Jimmy Golden on piano. We backed Sonny Stitt, too, and Bond and I played for Thelonious Monk as well. Jimmy Bond also got me my first record date, with Nina Simone.

Lester was a piece of work. I loved being around this guy because he was just so different. He seemed like he was gay, since he swished when he walked, but he wasn’t. He was just unique. I was so young then and just enraptured by this cat. We all loved him. I couldn’t wait for him to come to town.

OK, you talked to Benny Golson? Well, Benny’s an angel, who never swears or curses. But if you’re talking about Lester, you’ve got to talk nasty, because he swore all the time. He called everybody “bitch.” Or “Pres.” It was “Pres” or “bitch” for everybody.

My father played clarinet on weekends. He liked John Philip Sousa. During the week he was an auto mechanic, but he played clarinet on weekends. Then he’d take the clarinet into the pawn shop on Monday, and the guy gave him 4 dollars for it until he pawned it the next weekend.

Anyway, my Dad came to the club to see me play with Lester Young. When the gig was over, we came out through the middle of the bar (that’s how the stage was set up). I proudly said, “Lester, this is my father.”

My dad said, “How do you like playing with my son?”

Lester replied, “Well, Pres, the bitch vonces just right for me!”

My dad grumbled afterwards, “I never liked that old man anyway.”

So, Philadelphia was dry on Sunday, right? So that’s why there were matinees on the first day, Monday, and the last day, Saturday, but no gig Sunday. Every night we’d play 9 to 1, but on Monday and Saturday we’d play 4 to 7 as well. And between the matinee and night sets, I’d join Lester at a little bar around the corner that was cheaper then the club. He’d order a small gin, then sweet port in a tall glass, and chased those with a Rolling Rock. Then, of course, he’d smoke a couple of joints. He called weed “Edis,” after “Con Edison,” meaning power.

Smoking weed was illegal in Philadelphia, and everybody knew Lester smoked, of course. In Philly they didn’t understand this guy. One time we were in the back room of the club and a black narcotics detective team came in. “Rez and Rags” were well known: “Rez” was light-skinned and “Rags” dressed in old clothes. They tried to put the heavy on Lester: “We know you have some weed, Pres.” But he held up his drink and replied, “Lester’s ginin’ it tonight!” They grumbled but left us alone.

But most of the time he was so high he’d be moving in slow motion. We were all so fucking high. One time he whispered to me on the stand, “You play and I’ll take the bridgework” - meaning the bridge -- “And then we’ll play “Lester Creeps” -- meaning, we’re so fucking high right now that we’d better just creep into “Lester Leaps In.”

I loved him so much man.

There was a local tenor player named Jimmy Oliver who was black! Blacker than you can believe. Black as night and only five feet tall. We called him the Satin Doll. Oliver loved Lester and imitated him; played all his licks.

One night he came in and asked Lester, “You mind if I sit in?” Lester responded, “Well, Pres, I don’t like to rumble. You play your little songs, then I’ll play my little songs. That way you don’t throw Lester down.”

Afterwards he walked Oliver over - took him by the hands -- to the Jewish owner, Herb Geller, and said, ”Look at the bitch’s palm’s: there is nothing blacker!”

He was so different.

He never told anybody in the band what to play. He’d never count anything off, either. He’d sing the tempo a little bit until one of started playing. When he said, “We are going to play ‘Polka Chips, Pres,’” that meant it was going to be “Polkadots and Moonbeams.”

He sure had a way with words. Roy Haynes sat in with Lester, and fired him up so much that Lester just loved it. Afterwards he came up to Roy and said, “The slave is yours if you’ve got eyes.”

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