The ol’ GMC is five years old, and anyone who has spent some time here has probably noticed that I enjoy shining a spotlight on some of the less-remembered musical stars of the past. Of course, I’ve devoted plenty of space to the big names too, but I especially like to dig into artists who were tremendously respected in their day but might be a little forgotten now — guys like Lester Young, who was also known as ‘Prez’. He’s generally considered to be one of the top three tenor saxophonists of all time (along with Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane).
After growing up in a musical family in Mississippi and New Orleans, Young spent some time on the road before landing in Depression-era Kansas City primed to succeed in the business. He spent some time gaining experience in several bands before following along as Count Basie put together the group that would become a force in big band jazz. It would be a key moment in Young’s life.
Although he left Basie’s band shortly after, he soon returned and for the next several years his fame would rise along with Basie’s. He often worked with legendary singer Billie Holiday (who gave him his nickname) and pianist Teddy Wilson during this period, and even though he moved from job to job during the war he still often worked with Basie, as he would again in later years.
Young was eventually drafted late in the war, and it was not a happy time for him as he faced the casual racism of the era. In fact, some say that he was never the same musically in the post-war years, but others disagree. In any case, he was generally successful during that period, adapting well to newer styles like bebop and working with small groups in a number of venues, often touring with Jazz at the Philharmonic.
Unfortunately Young was spiraling downward by the 1950s, with a drinking problem fueled by both real and perceived difficulties. Even though he still made some memorable appearances like his reunion with Count Basie at the Newport Jazz Festival, his health steadily worsened and by the end of the decade he was in full collapse. He died in 1959 at just age 49.