My favorite Lester Young record opens with the words “Sometimes I’m happy/Sometimes I’m blue.” The words are not literally spoken or sung, but the great tenor saxophonist made a point of playing in such a way that the lyric always came through. In fact, you could always hear the words even when he wasn’t playing the melody.
What Lester Young (known as “Pres” or “Prez”) achieved more than anybody else was the ability to sound happy and blue at the same time. The essence of his art was the way in which he combined seemingly inapposite musical elements: No one else but Young could play at numbingly fast tempos and still sound relaxed, no one else could open up their soul to plumb emotional depths undreamed of in jazz while at the same time come across as incredibly cool, no one else could get so intense and at the same time be so tranquil. Lester Young is widely heralded as the father of the cool school in jazz (had he known that, he might have demanded a blood test), but he also was one of the most hard-swinging, aggressive players to ever pick up an instrument.
There have been other books about Lester Young, most notably Lewis Porter’s The Lester Young Reader and two volumes by the Danish scholar Frank Buchman-Moller, You Just Fight for Your Life and You Got to Be Original, Man, but Douglas Henry Daniels’s new book, Lester Leaps In, is by far the most exhaustively researched. No one else has been able, for instance, to detail every street Lester could have lived on as a child in New Orleans. Some major facts remain elusive; for instance, no one has come up with the exact dates of any of Young’s three weddings, but with the exception of Daniels, other Young biographers don’t seem to know about his first wife, Beatrice Toliver.
Unlike Buchman-Moller, Daniels, a professor of history and black studies at UC Santa Barbara, is far more concerned with Young’s life than his music. Most of Young’s classic recordings (even the aforementioned “Sometimes I’m Happy”) are hardly mentioned, let alone analyzed. We are repeatedly told by Daniels and his many interview subjects that Young’s style was an alternative to the full-blooded sound of jazz’s first tenor titan, Coleman Hawkins, but there’s little attempt to capture the sound of Young’s horn in words to make us hear it in our heads.
Daniels also spends a lot of time telling us that most of what we have been told by everyone else who has ever written about Lester Young is wrong, and in the process he makes some good points. For one thing, although Young is usually held up as a representative of the Kansas City style of jazz, Daniels establishes that he spent relatively little time in that Missouri town, and that his formative years in New Orleans, not long after the birth of jazz itself, were a considerably more vital influence. And while Young’s own recollections tend to paint a picture of his father (and teacher and first bandleader) as dictatorial and overbearing, Daniels portrays Willis “Billy” Young as an admirable, even outstanding role model for a young musician. Daniels also attacks the long-outdated notion that Young’s postwar years were nothing but a long, slow decline. I haven’t heard anyone espouse this opinion in eons, but we can’t be told often enough that Prez did much of his best playing in the late ’40s and ’50s, when he led his own groups. (Unlike most jazz legends of his caliber, Young spent most of his glory years as a sideman, and didn’t record under his own name until 1942.)
At times, it seems as if Daniels’s main point is to establish that everything Young achieved as an artist and a human being was directly attributable to his foundation in the long tradition of Afro-American Protestant values, and that every bad thing that ever happened to him was a by-product of white racism. Daniels does acknowledge the influence of Frank Trumbauer, a great sax stylist of the ’20s (who happened to be white), on Young, and that Young couldn’t have written his most famous composition, “Lester Leaps In,” had not George Gershwin first written “I Got Rhythm.” Eventually he admits that Young’s professional slide in his late forties was largely due to his dependence on alcohol. It seems to me that if Young were as morally steadfast and psychologically sturdy as Daniels maintains, and had such unreproachable familial role models, then he might have had less of a problem with substances.
Lester Leaps In is weakest on the later years. Although Daniels does make the necessary point that Young’s postwar period was not, as was once widely reported in the jazz press, a decline, he seems less interested in Young as an artist or person than with weaving an elaborate cultural tapestry of the jazz scene in the late ’40s and ’50s, in which Prez is merely his most prominent character. The book is most valuable for its coverage of Young’s pre-Basie period—particularly his years with his father’s band, King Oliver and the Blue Devils. Here, detail is Daniels’s key strength. He presents us with every possible version of every significant event in Young’s early life, and casual readers may find the narrative a bit slow going, but Prez-idential scholars will delight in the wealth of new information, particularly about Young’s family and his childhood. Daniels may not have written the definitive biography of Lester Young—perhaps no one ever will—but Lester Leaps In does something few books have done: tell us something new about this most elusive of American musical icons.
Douglas Henry Daniels will read from Lester Leaps In on Sunday at 7 p.m., Saint Peter’s Church, Lexington Avenue and 54th Street, 212-935-2200.
Also in This Issue’s Books Section:
Richard B. Woodward on Notable American Women by Ben Marcus
Shana Liebman on Valentine by Lucius Shepard