Lester Young was born in 1909 and died before he reached fifty, so when we celebrate his hundredth birthday, it is with the wonder that he existed at all — and the sadness that his feelings were often “bruised,” to use his evocative word.
Just recently (Nov. 27, 2009) the drummer and swing master Hal Smith staged a tribute to Lester at America’s Finest City Dixieland Jazz Festival in San Diego, California, with some performances caught by our very own and most cherished SFRaeAnn, who signs her checks Rae Ann Berry.
Hal’s band — wittily dubbed “Hal’s Angels,” is comprised of Anita Thomas, tenor sax and clarinet; Carl Sonny Leyland, piano and vocal, Katie Cavera, guitar and vocal, Mike Earls, bass, and Hal himself. Hal and band led the audience through a brief musical tour of Lester’s life, from his pre-recording influences to his last decade. Here are several highlights:
To start things off, Hal and the band embarked on a rocking blues, the kind that Lester loved to play, early and late. This blues line comes from recordings made at a mid-Fifties gig in Washington, D.C. — and it’s in the key of G, hence the title: “G’S, IF YOU PLEASE”:
But before Lester ever got into a recording studio, he was astonishing fellow musicians and listeners — among them the writer Ralph Ellison. But Lester, for all his indefatigable originality, had heard other musicians in the Twenties. Jazz records were not easy to find, but his fellow reedman Eddie Barefield had acquired several of the 1927 OKeh records featuring Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer. Lester credited Trumbauer as an early influence, and if one listens to Tram throughout his career, the sound and approach that affected Lester are easy to appreciate. (In fact, Trumbauer’s final session for Capitol contains a near-ballad version of BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA that sounds for all the world like Lester on C-melody saxophone.)
Thus, a properly slow reading of Trumbauer’s solo on WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS:
One of the glorious sessions Lester made was also his first — “Jones-Smith, Inc.” in late 1936, which produced LADY BE GOOD. Had Lester recorded nothing else, we would have this recording as evidence of his mastery. And his influence is heard throughout this performance, which shows off the uplifting rhythm section, even when Anita isn’t soloing:
With the Kansas City Six, Lester played clarinet, unmistakably, and Hal’s Angels turn to I WANT A LITTLE GIRL, with Carl offering a vocal that reminds us of Lester’s work alongside Jimmy Rushing in the Count Basie band. It’s the only time Anita offers a written-out Lester solo, and she has his tart tone and sideways phrasing down pat:
For perhaps three years, Lester and Billie Holiday turned out one recorded masterpiece after another: here is BACK IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD, with Katie singing, in their honor:
I don’t exaggerate when I write that Lester would have been delighted to play with this band. And since he called everyone “Lady,” I think he would have been most pleased by the playing of Lady Anita, who suggests some of his curving architecture without copying him. Although many famous players tried to copy him, their energetic imitations only show how individual he was, and how his essence eluded them. Better to “go for yourself,” as he said, as Hal’s Angels do so well here.