Today would have been Lester Young’s one-hundredth birthday.
His centenarybecame a media event weeks ago. Smithsonian Magazine and the Wall Street Journal carried articles celebrating Lester’s life and art; Ted Gioia has written what looks like a fine book proposing that everything that was once outsider cutlure, “hip,” “cool,” the property of only a few trend-setters, originated with Pres. Online, there are sites devoted to the occasion (I could send someone a Pres e-card this morning, or I could subscribe to a jazz video site that promises me a new one emailed every day).
All these celebrations seem good omens that our culture, typically ignorant or dismissive of jazz, is paying attention to a heroic figure.
Would the attention have pleased Lester? I hope so. I have in my mind’s eye the account of a birthday party given in his honor at Birdland in the Fifties, where Lester cut the obligatory first piece of cake for the photographers while holding his horn in the other hand, playing I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT TIME IT WAS, both witty and apt.
And I was cheered by the blogpost written by Fernando Ortiz de Urbina, where he states the heretical but resounding truth that Lester’s influence outweigh’s Charlie Parker’s. You should read it here: http://jazzofftherecord.blogspot.com/2009/08/lester-young.html — his blog, not incidentally, is named EASY DOES IT, in Lester’s honor. And as I write this, WKCR-FM is playing Lester’s music — for free — and it can be accessed online at http://www.wkcr.org.
But I wonder how much posthumous affection and attention we would have to give Lester to make up for the hurts he suffered. His feelings, once wounded, stayed that way. His father threw him out of the family band because he couldn’t read music (although he played his part magnificently by ear); later, his section-mates in the 1934 Fletcher Henderson band mocked him because he didn’t sound like their idol Coleman Hawkins, and insisted that Fletcher get another tenor player; John Hammond discouraged Count Basie from raising Lester’s salary although Lester was that band’s star; he could not make a success of his own small band; the United States Army did its best to destroy him; a legion of “grey boys” played his phrases back to him in clubs and concerts for more money; he ended his days in New York, sitting by his window, playing mournful Frank Sinatra records, drinking cognac.
It is no accident that some of his most unforgettable solos — BLUES IN THE DARK, I LEFT MY BABY, FINE AND MELLOW — sound like a heartbroken man trying to hold back tears. Can love that comes too late make up for its absence? I don’t think so.