Lester “Prez” Young

Early Childhood Life

Lester Young was born on August 27, 1909, in Woodville, Mississippi to parents Lizetta and Willis Handy Young. Young grew up alongside his brother, Lee Young, and a sister, Irma Cornelia in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans. For most of his early childhood, Young worked to make money for his family by selling newspapers and shining shoes. Lester Young grew up in a family of music lovers as his father was a teacher and band leader so by the time Lester was ten years old, he knew how to play the trumpet, violin, and drums.

The Beginning Years

Young’s career began at a young age when he decided to stick to playing the alto saxophone and at the age of eleven, Lester’s family moved to Minneapolis where they decided to form a family band when he was thirteen. A few years later after family problems with his father, Young left the band to play with Art Bronson in Arizona. He stuck with Bronson until the mid-1930s when he moved to Minneapolis to play with various bands.

He is mainly known for his time as a part of Count Basie’s band where he played alto sax and introduced the idea of improvisation which is a heavy influence on the basis of modern solo jazz. For many years Young and Basie toured and recorded many hit records before leaving the band in the 1940s. Lester Young has also worked alongside singer Billie Holiday as they have recorded songs together as well. Billie is who gifted Lester his nickname “The Prez” as the president of jazz while he gifted her with the nickname “Lady Day”. Over the course of his career, Young has worked with many musicians such as Red Callender, Nat ‘King’ Cole, Al Sears, Dizzy Gillespie, and more.

Young's Influence on Jazz

Lester Young’s style was the traditional swing style which will always link him to Basie’s band. Young influenced many musicians like Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, and Al Cohn. He greatly influenced Stan Getz through his famous soft tone. His tone was known for being striking through the swinging, rhythmic feeling in his improvisations which was more graceful compared to what was usually heard from other jazz musicians in the 1930s. When Young recorded his solo music outside of bands, it was a mix of ballads, blues, and moderate and fast-tempo AABA-structured tunes.

Young's Final Years

In the late 1950’s, Young began to have health problems and as he was touring his health was slowly deteriorating. After receiving bad ratings from a tour he had done with Miles Davis, Young had begun drinking heavily. This was disheartening being that Young already had other complications like an untreated case of syphilis. He later returned home in 1958 after being told he didn’t have much longer to live due to malnutrition, alcoholism, and cirrhosis of the liver. After touring again briefly, Lester “The Prez” Young passed away on March 15, 1959.

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