In his film, “Kansas City,” director Robert Altman dramatized the most famous saxophone duel in the history of jazz. In his dramatization, this fabled “cutting contest” between Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young is witnessed by a teenaged Charlie Parker, who would later become pivotal in creating modern jazz. Douglas Daniels analyzes this much- discussed event in his comprehensive biography of Lester Young, and his analysis illustrates his underlying mind-set (and heart- set), purposes, and methods. As an African American, he wants to believe the testimony of such musicians as Count Basie and Mary Lou Williams who claimed they were present when Lester Young, an unknown saxophonist with an idiosyncratic style and ethereal tone, outplayed Coleman Hawkins, a renowned saxophonist with a swaggering style and hefty tone, but their conflicting, even contradictory versions mean that, as a critical historian, he has to question the veracity of their accounts.
Such stories about Young were uncritically accepted in previous articles and books, but Daniels’s purpose is to demythologize Young’s life and to understand his career in its African American context. Daniels, who makes use of previous biographies, spent more than twenty years studying materials in archives and libraries and interviewing many of Young’s relatives, friends, and fellow musicians.
Daniels’s reinterpretation of Young begins with his roots. Lester spent much of his youth in southern Louisiana, where he experienced both sacred music in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and secular music in the jazz bands of New Orleans. Willis Handy Young, his father, was an itinerant musician and teacher, and Lizette, his mother, was a religious Creole who instilled such Christian values as honesty and personal responsibility into Lester and his younger sister Irma and brother Lee. However, Daniels’s creation of a supportive familial and religious environment for the young Lester is problematic, since it contradicts Young’s own memories—admittedly often faulty. He claimed that he did not meet his father until he was ten years old, and he insisted that it was the music of New Orleans bands and not black church music or his father’s music that influenced him. This uncertainty also characterizes a momentous event in Lester’s youth. In 1919, his father took him and his siblings away from their mother. Willis had married “Sarah,” who played saxophone and banjo in his bands. According to his sister, Lester was devastated about leaving his mother, but he characteristically kept his feelings to himself.
In his new family circumstances, Lester learned to play drums, and the rhythmic sensibility he absorbed from this experience later influenced his improvisations on tenor saxophone. The years from 1919 to 1926 were important for Lester’s musical education. He switched from drums to alto saxophone in his father’s band because he found caring for the drums cumbersome and time-consuming. The Young family settled briefly in Minneapolis, but the family band also toured through Nebraska, Kansas, and the Dakotas. Lester often disliked the music and skits he was forced to perform and sometimes disobeyed his father, who occasionally beat him, causing Lester to run away. When he refused to accompany the family band on a tour of the South, whose racism he despised, Lester Young left his family for good.
The late 1920’s and early 1930’s constitute what Daniels calls Young’s “territorial years.” He switched from alto to tenor saxophone and began creating his distinctive style. In his father’s bands he had learned to improvise, and his solos were often infused with a feeling for the blues. However, according to Lester himself, the most important influence on how he played the tenor was Frankie Trumbauer, a white musician who was able to produce a light, airy tone on his C-melody saxophone. Lester tried to re-create Trumbauer’s sound on the tenor by reducing his vibrato and creating sounds that were much gentler than those of other saxophonists. He was able to refine his tone and develop his improvisational skills while touring with such bands as Walter Page’s Blue Devils. So impressed were his fellow musicians with his seemingly inexhaustible musical imagination that they gave him the honorific “Pres,” which was short for “President of the Tenor Saxophone.”
Seeking a stability that his nomadic life had denied him, in 1930 Young married Beatrice Toliver, a white woman, in New Mexico, and they settled for a time in Minneapolis. Daniels is unable to explain the details of this relationship, for, in its early years, Young fathered a child with another woman in Minneapolis. This daughter later claimed that Lester had married her mother,...
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