This rectangular slip of paper — with only eleven letters signed by his own hand by one of the gods of creation — makes me feel a deep sadness. Lester Young, one of the most inspired individuals of the twentieth century, is so much larger than his signature on a withholding tax form. It’s almost like imagining Prometheus in chains to think of Lester having to sign forms so that money could be taken from him, having to pay taxes.
I think this brightly creative person was also one of the most delicate creatures: consider his sadness, which isn’t always so evident in his late playing. Even though he was tall, physically powerful, his spirit was airborne and thus shackled by the mundane demands of this world. I am not retelling the stories of what happened to him in the United States Army, but here is evidence of an unusual man being required to do the usual:
The President, forced to be ordinary. Are we surprised that he seems to have willed his life to be over so quickly?
Had we known Lester Young’s sorrow, could we have taken it on ourselves and lessened his pain? Could his friends and the people who insisted that he sign forms have loved him more, have helped him to be free?
I do not know, and perhaps it is presumptuous even to speculate. But for a moment I imagine a youthful, ever buoyant Lester Young, going his own way in a world exist where he did not have to rush, could wear soft shoes and make pretty sounds? Poets and martyrs, Yeats said, more or less, do not live in the world of bankers. Lester tried to make our world and his brighter, less painful.
His sound lives on; his music still floats.
May your happiness increase!