Through the good offices of Swing Era scholar David Weiner, whom I’ve known since the mid-Seventies, and the indefatigable Will Friedwald, I’ve become a member of a Yahoo group, “Toast of New York,” or ToNY, whose members swap information, music, film clips, and questions about the period online. The other day, saxophonist and Lester Young disciple Loren Schoenberg came up with this delectable photograph.
It’s taken from the website SWING FASHIONISTA http://www.swingfashionista.com. — lovely and fascinating.
The photo itself comes from a Ken Burns book on jazz (I will not embark on the expected Burning here) and it depicts the saxophone section (Theo Ross and Buster Smith) of the Blue Devils — led by the Blessed Walter Page — greeting the new member, Lester Willis Young, in 1932. There are not that many pictures of Lester as a young man before the Count Basie band came East, so this one is a rare pleasure. And it pleases me to imagine him as a young man who didn’t drink too much and was happy to play his horn, not the saddened Pres we read of, late in life, drowning his very real sorrows in cognac.
But what pleases me at the same time is the beautiful linen suits these musicians are wearing. In the Black argot of the time, a badly or poorly-dressed person might be “raggedy as a bowl of slaw”; someone stylish would be “sharp as a tack.” Lester, even though he seems slightly diffident, a bit shy for the camera (without his horn to hold on to) is SHARP — those shoes, that three-piece suit, the pocket square. And that pipe! Who knew?
Of course, clothes alone don’t make the man — it matters more than anything that it is Lester Young in the center — but the combination of man and suit and pipe, captured a bit stiffly in a photographer’s studio, is something to cherish.