The First Black Prez

Illustration for article titled The First Black Prez

For hard-core jazz fans, Barack Obama is the second African-American president. Tenor saxophonist Lester Young was the first. He didn’t win 365 electoral votes, but he won the vote of Billie Holiday, who nicknamed him The President aka Prez.


Young introduced a dynamic new approach to the saxophone; his playing had a leaner tone and a cooler approach, and it influenced countless other greats who have played the instrument including Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray and Stan Getz. But his influence didn’t stop with instrumentalists. His approach to songs influenced Holiday (whom he nicknamed Lady Day) as well as Frank Sinatra, and his style can be heard in just about every singer of classic American song that those two legends have influenced—in other words nearly everyone.

Young died much too soon in 1959 at the age of 49, but the centennial of his birth arrives this week and it’s time for a presidential address.

He was born in Woodville, Miss. on Aug. 27, 1909, and he grew up both in New Orleans and Minneapolis. He played several instruments including drums and violin in a family band, but settled on the tenor saxophone in 1930 when he joined Walter Page and the Blue Devils, the great Kansas City band that became the template for the Count Basie Orchestra. Young first joined Basie in 1934, but left to pursue other opportunities. However, Young discovered that there was a dominant saxophone sound, the gruff but fluid tones of Coleman Hawkins. Young’s lithe sound was too avant-garde for many big bands of the mid ‘30s, so Prez returned to Basie in 1936 and began a history making run of great music.

There were many great jazz orchestras in the late ‘30s: Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Fletcher Henderson were three of many, but the Count Basie Orchestra was the No. 1 band in the land, and Young was a major reason why. His solos were showstopping and infectious. He knew when to hold back—and when to surge forward. He had a keen ear for rhythm. The song “Lester Leaps In” quickly became a signature tune for the Basie band. This clip of the band from 1938 gives a brief glimpse into its greatness. It’s also a superb Young solo.

As great as Young was with tunes that were dance-floor favorites, his true and lasting artistry came with ballads. His tone was nearly that of a mournful human voice and when he applied it to a sad song, “I Cover the Waterfront,” for instance, the languid sense of remorse and sorrow was palpable. You didn’t just hear where he was coming from; you felt it, too.

Young was drafted into the army during World War II and his experiences with racism in the armed forces scarred him. Upon his return, he participated in a series of tours and recordings organized by the legendary jazz impresario Norman Granz called Jazz at the Philharmonic. He also led many small group sessions. Some of his most notable work came with Holiday. This clip features an all-star session doing “Fine and Mellow,” from 1957. Young takes the second solo (after Hawkins, no less) and speaks a volume to the notion that less is sometimes more.


Young became increasingly obtuse in the late ‘50s; offstage, he developed his own slang that bordered on a hipster language of sorts. In this somewhat profane interview done only a few weeks before his death, where he explains his upbringing and early professional life, the slang is thick and heavy. By that point, Young was drinking heavily and rarely eating; he died not long after the interview on March 15, 1959.

After his death, Young was lionized by jazz giants of the day. Charles Mingus wrote “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” as a tribute to Young, and it has become a jazz standard. Wayne Shorter wrote “Lester Leaves Town” as a tribute, too. And Dizzy Gillespie ran for president as the title of his 1963 opus suggests, but Prez remained the only commander in chief in the jazz world. His sound today lives on in the playing of younger saxophone masters such as Mark Turner and Noah Preminger. New York’s WKCR-FM is doing a daylong marathon tribute to the saxophone legend on the Aug. 27; and Concord Music Group has put out a nifty disc, Centennial Celebration, which compiles many of Young’s best tracks. And of course, anything that the Basie band did in the late ‘30s is a must for any fan of great music. There will be other African Americans elected to the Oval Office, but there was only one president in jazz, Lester Young.


Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.

Martin Johnson writes about music for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate and beer for Eater, and he blogs at both the Joy of Cheese and Rotations. Follow him on Twitter