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All This Jazz: The Man In The Pork Pie Hat

Jazz singer Jill Grant pays a fitting tribute to her favourite musician, the great Lester Young.

For more of Jill’s words, which bounce, sing and swing and make you feel lucky to have read them, please type her name in the search box in the menu on this page.

That’s Lester Young. The President, Billie Holiday dubbed him – Pres for short, to rank him up there with the Duke and the Count, and in return he called her Lady Day. My favourite musician. Someone I would say that I love.

This is not going to be a dry biography – you know, born in Woodville, Mississippi and all that. Still less an exercise in musicology, with talk of pandiatonic clusters and chromatic runs. Well at least I know what the latter are, but to me pandiatonic clusters sound like some diabolical and foul-tasting chocolate, the joker in the box of Good News or Dairy Box.

“Fancy a pandiatonic cluster?”

No ta – I’ll stick to the caramels.”

That kind of musical education didn’t come my way, as I have explained in previous articles (no money, no money, no money no money….). But I have an ear to hear his incredible time, phrasing and light, airy tone, and a heart to feel the way he sang on that tenor sax of his.

My first memory of hearing Pres was on the first jazz recording that made an impression on me. Made an impression? Jumped out and grabbed me, more like. “One O’Clock Jump” recorded in 1937 by the Count Basie. I had never heard anyone flatten a solo to a single note, as he did in the first four bars, letting the time stand alone. Nor had I heard a tone like his – sinuous and no vibrato. A contrast to the approach of Herschel Evans who occupied the other tenor chair at the time. They loved to hate each other, apparently but Pres was devastated when Evans died suddenly only a short time after that recording. At the time, I didn’t know Pres’s name or anything about him, finding that out a bit later.

His first known recording was in 1936 (erm – what was it I said about musicology?), with a small band led by Count Basie. For contractural reasons, the combo recorded as “Jones Smith Incorporated”. Oh forget the dry stuff – I’ve got the tune in question on the player and can think of nothing but “where did he GET that way of playing?” He claimed to have been influenced by white musician Frankie Trumbauer but my take on it is that his style sprang fully-formed from his brain, influenced by nobody but himself.

I’ve been listening to that recording since I was nine or ten, but can’t imagine ever tiring of it. Do yourselves a favour and have a listen – especially to his second chorus where he plays with the time like a cat with a mouse. “Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie” is another precious recording. His solo is one of the most famous in the whole of jazz.

Pres had three spells with the Basie band, leaving firstly to join Fletcher Henderson’s band. That didn’t work out in a big way, since he didn’t want to – and couldn’t anyway – sound like Coleman Hawkins. The dreaded bandleader’s wife phenomenon reared its ugly head as Leora Henderson had the temerity to play him the Hawk’s recordings – and nag him to sound the same. He decided enough was enough and rejoined Basie but left in 1940, returning in 1943. There is a story that Basie sacked him for refusing to play on Friday the 13th. Ho hum. I can imagine Pres doing this as he was a mass of contradictions, but not Basie sacking him for it.

During his second stint with Basie, he and other Basie sidemen recorded with Billie Holiday and Teddy Wilson, leaving us with a collection of the finest jazz vocal – indeed jazz full stop – recordings in the history of jazz. Hard to pull out a favourite but “Easy Living” must be somewhere close – for the way he played the bridge, Lady’s vocal and Buck Clayton’s sympathetic obbligatos behind her. I am listening with a lump in my throat. Daft old bat.

Lady and Pres were good friends, but not lovers – and musically like two sides of the same coin. She too flattened the melody line, played with the time and could convey emotion like no other singer. The heavenly twins wouldn’t be a bad name for them, I reckon.

Pres had his own way of thinking about everything, including the English language. Fingers were “people” and he once admonished a startled piano player by demanding to hear more from his “left people”. He had nicknames for many people, as well as Lady Day there was Lady Q (tenor player Paul Quinichette). His phrase for covert racism was “I feel a draft”.

Draft and racism. A terrible nemesis for a lovely, super-talented man. He did his utmost to avoid the WWII draft – I think he suspected what might happen. Sure enough, he was sent to the South and came under the mailed fists of the kind of southern crackers he thought he’d left behind him. Not for him the treatment afforded such as Glenn Miller – straight into an Forces swing band. Pres was not allowed to play, and when they found out his wife was white, they ratcheted the screws several notches tighter. He spent most of his time in the army jail, finally being given a dishonourable discharge for possessing marijuana.

This appalling experience cast a dark spell over the rest of his life, giving him mental problems that drove him to the bottle. True, he made some fine recordings after his release, but to me there’s something missing. Not the phrasing, not the time – they were still there. But his tone was darker; gone was the sparkle and what I can only describe as the sound of optimism.

It must have hurt him to have to sit and watch his imitators making far more money that he was. “Nobody ever said thank you” was his wry comment. Latterly he joined Norman Granz’s “Jazz at the Philharmonic” touring circus. Sorry, but I can’t take all the honking and squealing and I’m willing to bet Pres didn’t find it congenial. Playing to the gallery when the gallery was full of idiots.

His decline and death coincided eerily with Lady’s. By 1957 they were both in dire trouble, both with ill-health and financially. But that was the year of “Fine and Mellow” on US TV for a film called “The Sound of Jazz” (it’s on YouTube – go and listen; it says more for itself than I can). A remarkable and moving performance.

In 1959 they both died, Pres first.

Goodbye Pork Pie Hat. Your music will always make me laugh with pleasure and break my heart, all at the same time. To borrow a line from a pop song (and not even a good one, but it will serve).

“This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you”.

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