Quotes by Lester Young himself
This bitch to Fletcher Henderson’s wife would take me down to the basement to the old windup phonograph and ask me, “Lester, can’t you play like this?” – Coleman Hawkins things. Every morning that bitch would wake me up at nine o’clock to try to teach me to play like Coleman Hawkins. And she played trumpet herself – circus trumpet!
I had in mind what I wanted to play, and I was going to play that way. That’s the only time that ever happened, someone telling me to play differently from the way I wanted to.
I wasn’t happy with all the motherfuckers whispering on me every time I was playing. I wanted to split, so I went to Fletcher and I said, “Will you give me a nice recommendation?” And he says, “Oh, yeah” right quick. “Thank you”, and I went to Andy Kirk’s band and had a nice time.
The trouble with most musicians today is that they are copycats. Of course you have to start out playing like someone else. You have a model, or a teacher, and you learn all that he can show you. But then you start playing for yourself. Show them that you’re an individual. And I can count those who are doing that today on the finger of one hand.
A man can only be a stylist if he makes up his mind not to copy anybody. Originality is the thing. You can have tone and technique and a lot of other things but without originality you ain’t really nowhere. Gotta be original.
The critics used to call me the honk man. Mike Levin said I had a cardboard sound and that I couldn’t play my horn. You dig? That made it harder to play my horn. That’s why I don’t put the kids down. They’re all playing. It depends on whether you dig them.
That’s why I always let my little kiddies play solos. That way they don’t bother me when I solo. In fact, sometimes I get bawled out by people who want to hear me play more, but I believe if you’re paying a man to play, and that man is on the bandstand and can play, he should get a chance to tell his story.
We all love to be young and new. These guys love to come in, but they hate to go out. They’ll ring the bell on me for talking like that, but it’s the truth. Sure, bop can be pretty – but my music is swing!
Young about the young bop musicians
Frankie Trumbauer and Jimmy Dorsey were battling for honors in those days, and I finally found out that I liked Frankie Trumbauer. Trumbauer was my idol. When I started to play, I used to buy all his records. I imagine I can still play all those solos off the record. He played a C-melody saxophone. I tried to get the sound of a C-melody on a tenor. That’s why I don’t sound like other people. Trumbauer always told a little story. And I liked the way he slurred his notes.
He did an act on Tiger Rag, too. He turned the mouthpiece around and played the horn upside down 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, and his right hand would be in front of him fingering the top end. 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.
It was his number, Tiger Rag, and we played it way 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 the trick with anybody he played with at that time, King Oliver and the Blue Devils.
He could play a hundred choruses and play them all different. We knew that, he would tell us that. Way back he used to say, “I can play a hundred choruses and play different for every chorus!” I heard him say that up in Minneapolis. He jammed there so much and played there for himself with just piano and drums. That was in 1930 and 1931 when he played with Frank Hines. He said, “When you play by yourself you can do that, because different ideas come to you.”
Leonard Phillips, trumpeter, who played with Young in the Billy Young Family Band, in Art Bronson’s Bostonians and in King Oliver’s band.
Quotes by others about Lester Young
I was with Victoria Spivey’s Revue. She’d just made the first black picture “Hallelujah” for King Vidor. We were in a hotel in Tulsa, Oklahoma, best hotel in the world at that time for blacks, I believe. Owner was an oil magnate, and he had a Steinway in the lobby and everybody’d go in there and jam.
We were down there one morning, jamming, high, having a good time, when somebody said to me there was a tenor player upstairs, Red Young. I went up. He was lying in his room, three or four corn pads on his toes. I woke him up. I says, “We’re having a session downstairs, why don’t you come along and play because I haven’t heard you play tenor?”
I’ll never forget that sound – light, very light, but aah! Everybody put their horns down on the floor and left. He scared everybody to death! He played like that on the alto, too, but I’d thought the tenor would slow him down some, but it didn’t. Lester said, “Look – I didn’t come down here to do a concert! That was in the early Thirties.”
Buddy Tate. Young was called “Red” in his youth.
Lester’s style was light, and, as I said, it took him maybe five choruses to warm up. But then he would really blow; then you couldn’t handle him on a cutting session. That was how Hawkins got hung up. The Henderson band was playing in St. Louis that evening, and Bean knew he ought to be on the way. But he kept trying to blow something to beat Ben [Webster} and Herschel [Evans] and Lester. When at last he gave up, he got straight in his car and drove to St. Louis. I heard he’d just bought a new Cadillac and that he burnt it out trying to make the job on time. Yes, Hawkins was king until he met those crazy Kansas City tenor men.
Mary Lou Williams on the jam session at the Cherry Blossom.
I’ll always remember when I first heard Lester. I’d never heard anyone like him before. He was a stylist with a different sound. A sound I’d never heard before or since. To be honest with you I didn’t like it much at first.
When Prez first came to me at the Reno Club in Kansas City it was like nothing we’d ever heard. And it was consistent. In all the years he was with our band he never had a bad night. No matter what happened to him personally, he never showed it in his playing. I can only remember him as being beautiful.
At the time of my first meeting with Billie [Holiday] she also met up with Lester Young. And there was one of the greatest companionships that I’ve ever seen, and that is all it was, and ever would be. They were so close that many believed them to be in love, but that was never the case. If you’ve ever seen two guys become great pals, then you can see the companionship of Billie and Lester. I know this, because I was one of the “Unholy Three”, as we called ourselves when we were together in some pad in Harlem.
The other night Benny Goodman, Basie, Lester Young, Jo Jones, Buck Clayton and Harry James got together in a small Harlem joint and jammed from two-fifteen to six in the morning. The music was something tremendous, for everyone distinguished himself. But one conclusion was inescapable: that Lester Young was not only the star of the evening but without doubt the greatest tenor player in the country. In fact I’ll stick my neck out even further: he is the most original and inventive saxophonist I have ever heard.
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 that 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 tenorplaying. He was the one who did it. He showed another way to go.
Thad Jones about hearing the Basie band for the first time in Detroit 1939
His reason for addressing other musicians “Lady” was, because, you know, his playing was with finesse, was so beautiful that he would be addressing your soul. To him a woman represented sophistication, dignity, delicateness, beauty, you know, so this is a quality that should exist in all human beings, so that’s the reason why he would address you in that manner.
I got a chance to hear Lester with the Basie band in Los Angeles. They came out here in 1939. All the cats cut school that day – the opening day at the Paramount Theater. Lester was really in his thing then – very exciting, very dynamic.
They opened with Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie, and Lester came out soloing – and he was just fantastic. I really loved the man. He was melodic, rhythmic, had that bittersweet approach. And, of course, in his pre-Army days he had such a zest for living. It felt so good to hear him play.
Lester led his band with his eyes. He hardly said anything except hey baby, or you know, everything that Lester had to say usually was complementary, you know. And he had nothing to say hardly at all except through his horn, but you could look at his eyes and tell what he was thinking if you were with him.
Sir Charles Thompson
Joe Shulman was his contractor then, and he asked me to go with them to Chicago also, but the money was low, and I couldn’t do it for that reason and probably because I had other commitments. That leads into one of the famous Lester stories that I heard later: The sideman says to Lester: “I’m sorry, Prez, but I can’t go on the road for $45.00 a week. How can I live?” To which Lester replies in that funny high-pitched voice, “You got to save your pennies if you want to play with Prez!”
He’s often a year or a year and a half ahead of everybody else. He catches something on the radio he likes, and he starts playing it – like How High the Moon. He and Marlowe Morris were playing it at Minton’s before it became widely popular in jazz. He was the one who first started playing Polka Dots and Moonbeams and Foggy Day again. He finds things that have meaning to them, and soon other people are playing or singing them again.
To play in a rhythm section with Lester Young had to be one of the most joyful experiences for any member of that fortunate section because, when he decided to really get into the tune, he would start playing some of those beautiful, long marvelous-shaped lines that would stretch from one part of the tune to the other. And, when he played like this, there was no way possible for you to escape playing well for him.
Lester, in short, had this remarkable ability to transmit beauty from within himself to the rhythm section. Whenever we played up tunes, he’d step to the microphone, raise the horn to that peculiar angle at which he always held it, and play some lines that were so relaxed that, even at a swift tempo, the rhythm section would relax.
Once Lester had to leave the bus on a JATP tour. Charlie Shavers and Roy Eldridge knew that Lester loved whiskey and always kept a bottle of it, and they decided to play a trick on him. Before Lester came back on the bus they took his liquor and hid it. When Lester came back on the bus he looked for it and kept looking for it, and finally he found it and went to the front of the bus and said, “Whoever has taken my whiskey I’m their mother’s very best man!”
Once the piano player Bobby Scott came into a nightclub where Young was playing with a local rhythm section. Young came over to him and complained about the piano player. “Oh Socks, baby, I’m glad to see you here! This boy playin’ piano plays very well. But he puts eight changes where there oughta be two! You know me, Socks. Somethin’ like “These Foolish Things”, I mean, I like the E-flat chord, the C-minor, the F-minor seventh, the B-flat nine. You know. Shit. I can’t play when there are eighty-nine motherfuckin’ changes in a bar!”
He liked bass players that would play pretty low notes, nice low notes at the right time. He used to call them “deep sea divers”. When the bassman was playing high he wouldn’t say anything, but when he hit a few low notes Lester would turn around all smiles and say something nice to let him know he liked that, “You deep sea diver, that’s beautiful!” Just to give him that idea to play more like that, you know.
On a JATP tour Young was catnapping on the bus in an aisle seat when Sonny Stitt took out his saxophone and began walking up and down the aisle playing all his licks. Nobody paid any attention to him, so finally he went over to Young and said, “Hey, Prez, whadda you think of that?” Prez, his eyes half closed, said, “Yes, Lady Stitt, but can you sing me a song?”
Working with a photographer who was doing a picture story on Lester, I found that it would be necessary, for a particular shot, to move Lester’s horn from the piano-stool he had set it down on. I asked for permission to do so. “Sure, Pres,” he said. “But hold it carefully; you dig? That’s my life.”
Robert A. Perlongo
The emcee at Birdland was Pee Wee Marquette, a midget from Puerto Rico. He became very unpopular among musicians because he used to buck everybody for money all the time. One evening when he again asked Young for some money, Lester turned him down, saying, “Get away from me, you half a motherfucker!”
When Young’s daughter Yvette was born, he often went out with her in the pram. One day he met Jo Jones, who teasingly asked him what he felt about babies in diapers. “Well,” Young answered, “I don’t mind the waterfall, but I can’t stand the mustard!”