A sympathetic and revealing portrait of the great jazzman.
Considering his stature in the jazz world—his nickname, “Pres,” stood for President of the Tenor Saxophone—it’s surprising that little has been written about Lester Young (1909–59) other than critical appraisals of his music. Daniels (History and Black Studies/Univ. of California, Santa Barbara) aims to situate Young in his milieu and to understand him from the perspective of family members, friends, and fellow musicians, many of whom the author interviewed in the 1980s. Young wasn’t solely an intuitive genius, Daniels explains. He was well grounded in the fundamentals of music by his father, a schoolteacher and professional bandleader who took young Lester with him on the minstrel-show circuit. With its emphasis on verbal wit and showmanship, minstrelsy also had an impact on Young’s presentation; he was renowned as an originator of hip talk and cool style. As for his musical importance, Daniels smoothly lays out the key components: his sweet, soulful, sinuous playing; his inventiveness and unpredictability; his stoking of the jitterbug and the Lindy hop; his inspiration and anticipation of bebop and rhythm and blues. What also comes across powerfully here is the nature of life for African-American musicians, not just the larger forces that wounded it (racism, Jim Crow laws, exclusion from lucrative hotel and radio jobs), but even more so its day-to-day texture: the experience of being on the road, the interactions among band members on and offstage, the grass-roots democratic character of the territorial bands. Daniels struggles to gain a sense of how Young’s drinking influenced his music, arguing that critics may have too hastily dismissed his postwar playing as booze-addled noodling when it was actually adventurous musical exploration.
To have recorded the impressions of Young’s sidemen before they died in itself performs an invaluable service, but Daniels has done much more in his wide-ranging biography, which doubles as a piquant slice of African-American social and cultural history. (20 b&w photographs)