Notes on Lester Young's 108th Birthday

Happy birthday, Lester Young!

On the road back from Jersey, I happened to tune into WKCR, only to remember that Young was born on this day in 1909. Earlier this year, I'd been learning some of his solos, but I took a break over the summer to work on some Coltrane and other projects. Having taken some notes while studying up on Young, I thought it was time to finally take down some of my thoughts and observations:

Brief Notes on Lester Young's 108th Birthday

The first Lester Young I ever heard was Lester Young with the Oscar Peterson Trio, recorded in late 1952. It was the only Lester Young CD available at my local Barnes & Noble in New Jersey, and I picked it up because I'd read that Young was a major influence on Stan Getz. At the time, I recall listening to it repeatedly but not particularly liking Young's playing, notably the wispy, reedy tone and intractably sharp intonation on the ballads. I also couldn't hear much of the resemblance as described by jazz writers about the essential debt that Getz owed Young.

Lewis Porter, in Lester Young, makes a valuable critical point about Young's recorded output: 

...the greatest key to the appreciation of Young's late work, [is] the fact that Young's style had changed and needed to be evaluated on different terms than the early works. One cannot understand the late records if one is constantly looking for echoes of the early ones, and constantly comparing with the early ones.  

...Admittedly, it is difficult to listen to Young's late works with a new ear. The early solos are beautiful and refreshing, and they establish a certain aesthetic. It requires an effort for the listener to listen to other solos by Young without having the same aesthetic standards and expectations. (100)

I had the opposite problem of Young's contemporary fans and critics: I hadn't heard the iconic early recordings with Basie, which had cemented his legacy and directly influenced Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, and so many others in the late '30s and '40s. Once I finally checked out those recordings—particularly up-tempo tracks like "Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie," "Twelfth Street Rag," and others—Prez's influence on the artists I mentioned became immediately clear: the buoyancy and momentum of his lines, the ease and confidence of his zigzagging phrases, and the unmistakable joy in his sound. 

The most obvious difference between early Lester and later Lester is in his sound: to my ears, even when's blowing full steam ahead with the Basie band playing backgrounds, his sound is full but rounded. On later small group recordings from the '50s, he sometimes sounds winded or playing only with a fraction of his full sound; when he does play at a louder volume, the tone grows harsher and not commensurately wider—he sounds strained in a way that he doesn't on the early recordings (although differences in audio fidelity between the two eras might also be partially contribute to this perception). 

Having opened Pandora's box of saxophone mouthpieces beginning last summer, one avenue of research this past year has been in the realm of Young's equipment. As detailed in Frank Büchmann-Møller's You Just Fight For Your Life: The Story of Lester Young, Young's first tenor was a silver-plated, (then) student-model Conn Pan-American tenor purchased on his behalf by pianist Art Bronson, in whose band Young was employed after leaving the Young family band in 1928. As Young told the story to François Postif the month before he passed in 1959, he made a proposal to Bronson following frustration with the band's then-tenor player:

I was playing alto, and we had this evil assed motherfucker. He had a nice, beautiful background, you know, mother and father and a whole lot of bread and all the shit like that. So, every time we'd get a job—this was in Salina, Kansas—so, every time we'd go to see this motherfucker. We'd all be ready, we'd be waiting for ninety years to get us to work, you know. And he said: "Wait for me until I get my shirt on, and get my tie on," and all that shit, and everybody'll be waiting, disgusted.  

So I told the bossman, his name was Art Bronson, I said: "Listen, why shall we go through this shit?" I say: "You buy me a tenor saxophone and I play this motherfucker and we'll be straight then." And he went to the music store, got me a tenor sax and we split. As soon as I got my mouth 'round it I knew it was for me. That alto was a little too high for me. (29)

In a 1946 interview for Jazz Record, he added: "When I saw the beat-up tenor he bought, though, I almost changed my mind. It was an old Pan-American job. But I played it and liked it, what's more." 

The Pan-American was Conn's budget model, with fewer options for finish and engraving compared to their professional line of New Wonder horns in the '20s and early '30s (this 1931 Chicago Musical Instrument Co. catalog lists the Pan-American tenor in only unfinished brass and satin silver finishes, the silver horn going new for $130.00, or just under $2000.00 today adjusting for inflation). That said, the horn is still fundamentally a Conn, with largely similar keywork and bore design, and with the familiar broad, fat Conn sound. 

Interestingly, according to saxophonist Francis "Doc" Whitby, who played with Young in King Oliver's band in 1933, Young had been looking to upgrade his horn: "[Whitby] remembers that he [Young] left Oliver about May 1933, because Oliver refused to buy him a new gold-plated Conn tenor saxophone" (Büchmann-Møller 40). Of course, Young ultimately did end up getting the gold horn that he wanted, which is now currently in the collection of the Rutgers Jazz Institute. Included with the horn is a note by Young:

MAY 25, 1955. TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN: This Conn saxophone, number 444,4444 [sic], is the saxophone I used with the Count Basie band in 1936 and later.

The serial number is actually 144,444, which places it around 1924, the transitional cusp between the New Wonder I and New Wonder II, the latter of which is commonly referred to as the "Chu Berry" model, having been favored by Chu Berry. I haven't yet had a chance to make a trip to the Institute to take a look at the horn (although I'd love to at some point), but based on photographs of the horn available online, I see that it has the small G# key that's unique to the New Wonder I (rather than the "nail-file" New Wonder II/Chu Berry G# key). Famous photos of Young in the late '30s and early '40s show him playing this horn, which has the unmistakeable satin gold finish with its engraving shown in mirror-like gold relief (an innovation that isn't present on earlier Conn gold-plated saxophones, where the engraved floral pattern isn't set apart from the satin finish).

These photos all show Young playing what looks like a metal Otto Link, which must be either a Master Link model or a slightly later Four Star model. Interestingly, photos from this era show that he isn't using the original round-screw ligature, but instead a two-screw ligature that seems to be a bit too small for the mouthpiece — photos such as this one show him with the ligature high up on the reed, perhaps even up to or above where the horizontal cut of the reed would be. My guess is that this unusual placement of the ligature was out of necessity rather than preference, but in any case I haven't seen any photos of Young playing on a Link mouthpiece with the original ligature.

At the time, these metal Otto Links were probably the best overall option for blending in a big band, playing in tune, and producing a full, rich sound. In general, mouthpieces of this era tended to be on the darker side: large chambers, little to no baffle, and relatively small openings by modern standards. It's possible that Young might have refaced or altered his; as I've heard from some older musicians, it was common for jazz musicians to work on their mouthpieces (Trane being the most famous example, such as putting in a baffle to alter his own metal Link in the late '50s, but also including Gene Ammons, Dexter Gordon, and others, as I've heard). Loren Schoenberg in A Lester Young Reader also suggests as much, writing, "He also switched mouthpieces during the war years, from a metal Otto Link, which he had handcrafted over the years and carried in his pocket at all times, to a stock model rubber mouthpiece, which changed the basic nature of the tone" (205) (as a note, I'm not sure whether Young switched to a hard rubber Brilhart mouthpiece—based on pictures I've seen, it seems just as likely that he switched to an Ebolin Streamline, made from injection-molded plastic).

Out of curiosity, I played an Otto Link Four Star with an original 4 facing (0.068" — roughly a modern C* opening on tenor) for a few months earlier this year. I had been used to playing hard reeds on a fairly small tip opening before (something like 4 Vandoren Traditional reeds on a 5 tip opening Brilhart), but this was the smallest tip I'd ever played, so I ended up using 5 Vandoren Traditional reeds to get a comfortable amount of resistance on the horn. I found the sound to be sweet, as in the pre-war swing fashion, but also that the mouthpiece would hit its volume and projection ceiling quickly compared to a modern mouthpiece with more baffle. Playing the mouthpiece at peak volume caused the sound to broaden without gaining additional upper partials or edge in the sound, as a brighter modern mouthpiece would, and I discovered that the blunt attack of a loud note with this setup was the kind of old-school honk you hear on some of these famous Young recordings.

My question still is how Young made himself heard over the big band, particularly when playing larger venues with minimal amplification. In some ways, I think the excitement he generates in his solos for a live audience might have also been a result of the overall effect of his lines' contours, the effects and honking, and his unique stage presence with his horn at 45 degrees. The recordings show that the content of his lines are as sophisticated as anything that was being played in the late '30s, but Billie Holiday shares an interesting story in the Reader about how Young used his skills with phrasing and rhythm to compensate for his relatively softer sound:

I’ll never forget the night Lester took on Chu Berry, who was considered the greatest in those days. Cab Calloway’s was the biggest band and Chu Berry’s was one of its big sounds. 

Well, this night Benny Carter was jamming for a session with Bobby Henderson, my accompanist. And then there was Lester with his little old saxophone held together with adhesive tape and rubber bands. Chu was sitting there and everybody started arguing as to who could blow out whom, trying to promote a competition between Lester and Chu. 

Benny Carter knew Lester could shine in this sort of duel, but for everybody else the end of the story was considered a pushover: Chu was supposed to blow Lester right out of the place. Chu had this pretty gold horn, but he didn’t have it with him. Benny Carter wouldn’t let that stop him. He was like me, he had faith in Lester. So he volunteered to go and pick up Chu’s horn. He did and came back. 

And then Chu Berry … suggested that they do ‘I Got Rhythm.’ … (Lester) blew at least fifteen pretty choruses, none of them the same, and each one prettier than the last. When the fifteenth one was down, Chu Berry was finished…. 

Chu’s gang were die-hards, and they were sick. All they could say to console themselves was that Chu had a bigger tone. What the hell that meant, I’ll never know. What difference how big a tone is or how small, as long as Lester’s line was moving in that wonderful way, with those chords, changes and those notes that would positively flip you with surprise? … There ain’t no rule saying everybody’s got to deliver the same damn volume or tone. 

But anyway, this talk about a big tone messed with Lester for months. And me too. So I said, ‘What the hell, Lester, don’t let them make a fool of us. We’ll get you a big horn with big fat reeds and things and no damn rubber bands around it holding you back. We’ll get us a tone.’ 

So every time Lester could get a dime together he’d get him some reeds and start cutting them up all kinds of different ways. He got a new horn, too, and thought that would end him up with a big fat growl. But his tone never got any bigger. He wasn’t meant to sound like Chu and he soon gave up trying. (54)

This story likely took place in early 1934, when Young first came to New York subbing in Fletcher Henderson's band (and when he first met Holiday). Presumably, the horn she's referring to is Young's beat-up old Pan-American, while Berry was playing on a then-new Conn New Wonder II Transitional gold-plated tenor (a prime example here). Perhaps most interesting in this story is how even though Young won the cutting contest with his limitless imagination, the social pressures of having a "big sound" continued to linger on his mind. He ended up getting a gold-plated horn (although second-hand and older) like Berry, and also purportedly worked on his reeds (most likely clipping them to make them more resistant, so as to produce more sound with a relatively close-tip mouthpiece), but he still sounded like himself.

Of course, it didn't really matter what Young was playing on, which he himself discovered in due time. He had his own sound and would largely sound the same despite changes in his equipment. Returning to Büchmann-Møller's biography, here's a story from Thad Jones from a 1984 interview, talking about witnessing Young performing with Basie in Detroit sometime in the '30s:

So when Count Basie made one of his rare trips to Detroit—we knew about those things way ahead of time—we immediately began to scrape the money together to get down there, because we had to go three to four miles to Detroit. We got there and all of us—who were all young musicians by the way—worked our way through the totally packed ballroom and it took us ten to fifteen minutes to come near the bandstand, and all of us wound up standing right in front of Lester Young, naturally.  

He was playing a saxophone that looked as though it should really have been in the shop. Around the keys it was turning green in spots and there was a rubber band or two around some of the keys, and we said, “How can he do this?” And then we looked at his attitude towards the music. It was like the horn only became an instrument through which the soul of Lester Young was expressed, it was like a transmitter, you know. When he’d still be up to play I would look around, and people would slow down their dancing just so that they could listen, because everybody realized then, even the people who didn’t really pay close attention to details as far as the music was concerned, everybody seemed to sense that they were witnessing one of the greatest musicians of all time.  

It was like he was the minister and we were his congregation out there. He was speaking words of wisdom to us, and very prophetic, because his style, what he was doing then, changed the whole concept of tenor playing. He was the one who did it. He showed another way to go. It was like listening to a saxophone with a sound of a flute with that clear just mellow, rich, round sound. It wasn’t associated with what we came to recognize as the sound of a tenor saxophone. Lester Young had a tenor saxophone sound that was different, and it was more like a bell-flute sound. Perhaps that was the main thing that attracted everyone to it. (83-4)

As I discovered, Young's choice of equipment perhaps also helped explain another aspect of his playing that had seemed mysterious to me: why he played his horn at a 45 degree angle during his pre-WWII years. Numerous stories have been told by musicians who knew him, providing various reasons that make sense to varying degrees:

[Jimmy] Rushing’s sidekick, altoist Rudy Powell, discloses: “You know how Lester first started holding his horn at that forty-five-degree angle he used for so many years? When he first joined the band, he said, ‘Herschel is playing so much, nobody is paying any attention to me.’ So he held his horn a different way.” (56, Reader).

Here's Jimmy Rowles's explanation:

And here’s an odd thing. His father held a saxophone upside down when he played it, in a kind of vaudeville way, so maybe Lester picked up his way of holding his horn from that. Whichever, the more he warmed up during work, the higher his horn got, until it was actually horizontal. (78)

Another by Ross Russell:

A more pragmatic explanation was offered by Ross Russell: “At the Reno Club with its crowded bandstand … Lester acquired his unusual way of holding the saxophone. To avoid poking fellow musicians in the back, Lester would twist in his chair, turn the horn at an angle of forty-five degree sand project it through an opening in the front line, so that he could play without interference and be heard by the dancers.”   

According to Earle Warren, the angle did not help Young to be heard. Upon first encountering the Basie band early in 1937, “I got a big boot out of Herschel’s sound but Lester I couldn’t hear well because he cocked his head at an angle and the resonance of his horn went up into the canopy.

Having experimented briefly with playing Young's solos in his iconic manner, with the mouthpiece tilted 90 degrees to the right (reed facing directly left), head cocked to the right 45 degrees, and horn held up at a 45 degree angles, I'm not convinced that he did it for sound. As you'd imagine, the sound from the horn is more in the right ear than in the left ear with this way of playing, but it's not necessarily clearer or more present to myself as I'm playing.

It may very well be a holdover from Young's early days with the Young family band, as trumpeter Leonard Phillips, who played with the band during that time, recalls:

[Lester] did an act on ‘Tiger Rag’ too. He turned the mouthpiece around and played the horn upside with the bell pointing straight to the floor. When he played that he took breaks. He would also put his left hand behind the back and the fingers at the bottom of his saxophone. He did that with all the bands at that time. He said that he couldn’t put on a floor show, so he would just play an act.

The tricks with the saxophone he started with Mr. Young’s danceband in Minneapolis. He saw a cat somewhere playing the horn behind him like I said, and then he thought about that when he played “Tiger Rag” which featured him. It was his number, “Tiger Rag,” and when we played up in tempo too. He played the horn upside down when he made all the breaks, and then after when we got to the trio part and got back to the chorus again he put it behind him. He’d break the house up, I mean the house would break down when he did that, because you would not see it done the way like that. He used that trick with anybody he played with at that time, King Oliver and the Blue Devils. (24-5)

If anything, it might also have been out of comfort that Young took to this posture, which makes more intuitive sense sitting rather than standing. Sitting down, the head rests toward the right shoulder, and the horn can partially hang over the right knee; given the rather low angle of the Conn neck (compared to Selmers, say), the horn doesn't need to be as high up on the neckstrap, and the mouthpiece can comfortably reach to the player's mouth when the horn draped over the knee. Given the punishing travel schedule of Young's years with Basie, maybe he also found it more comfortable sitting in the section. 

For saxophonists who've tried holding the horn up at forty-five degrees, they might have found it far more challenging with a Selmer, which is generally heavier and less optimally weighted with both bell keys on top and the lower stack rods in the center, than with a Conn New Wonder, which spreads out the weight between both bell keys (with smaller, lighter key guards) and its rods located in more toward the backside of the instrument. Young is rarely photographed after WWII playing his horn at his famous 45 degree angle, but he's also playing a Conn 10M, which is both heavier than a New Wonder and has both bell keys on the backside of the instrument; it might be because he's older, but it may also because of the nature of his instrument's design that caused him to stop employing his trademark posture.

In his solo at the end of "Jammin' the Blues," however, Young does stand up with his 10M up at an angle. At 6:55, you can see him tilt his upper body to the right, shift the horn off of his knee and vertically dip toward the floor before raising up the horn to its previous angle into the air. 

* * * * *

I spent most of this post talking about saxophone arcana, but there's much more I'd like to say about Prez and his playing. In the meantime, I'll be checking out some of the alternate takes from his sessions with Billie Holiday and also doing some C-melody investigation, which I also believe holds part of the puzzle to the singular style of Lester Young.


  1. Seems I once heard or read a ststement that Prez held his horn that way because of problems with his teeth-that it relieved the soreness.

    1. Ah, that's very interesting. It would place him in a long lineage of great saxophonists with dental issues. Hadn't thought of that -- thanks for sharing.


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