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And yet Lester Young had not suddenly sprung fully formed from the head of Zeus. He’d been playing saxophone ever since his father Billy, a musical model but a tyrannical parent, kidnapped him from his beloved mother at the age of ten to join the family dance band that tramped ceaselessly across the southern and mid-western states in search of paying audiences.
When this servitude came to an end Lester’s wanderings continued, with only limited success and recognition, until he reached Kansas City. It was strategically placed on the migration path of black workers moving north, and its political and social complexion – the city was in effect run by a pair of mobsters, Tom Pendergast and John Lazia, where prohibition and economic depression were equally ignored – proved hospitable to a musicians and audiences who by nature preferred to be unrestrained.
But, as Gunther Schuller points out in his detailed analysis of the solo, he rarely moves out of the range of a single octave: the magic is constrained within narrow bounds, and there are no virtuosic or melodramatic swoops and dives.
In the bridge passage the key suddenly moves for a time to the major, ‘a startling moment, says Schuller, ‘as if the light has suddenly been switched on or a bright color applied’.
Most miraculous of all, behind the abstract elegance of the performance lies a warmth and generosity of feeling that’s always present in Lester’s playing.
This may be linked to his constant striving to, in his own words, ‘tell a story’: there’s always a linear push to his music, as there is in his default musical form, the blues. This is no beginner trying out his skills in a small setting but a master of a new art.
Still, there’s nothing more thrilling than putting ‘Oh Lady by Good! And there’s certainly nothing, to quote a word apparently first used in this sense by Lester Young, more ‘cool’ to listen to.
When Lester enters at last after 40 seconds the piece lifts immediately from its smooth taxi down the runway.
His tone is light, without being weightless, and his line sinuous without ever losing the drive of the beat set by Basie.
The light fluidity of this style of playing struck Lester’s listeners as novel.
The dominant jazz tenorist of the age – indeed, he could be said to have established the tenor as a leading instrument – was Coleman Hawkins.