Jammin' the Blues is a 1944 short film in which several prominent jazz musicians got together for a rare filmed jam session. It features Lester Young, Red Callender, Harry Edison, Marlowe Morris, Sid Catlett, Barney Kessel, Joe Jones, John Simmons, Illinois Jacquet, Marie Bryant, Archie Savage and Garland Finney. For some, this is their only known appearance in a theatrical film. Barney Kessel is the only white performer in the film. He was seated in the shadows to shade his skin, and for closeups, his hands were stained with berry juice. Lindy Hop legends Archie Savage and Marie Bryant do the Lindy Hop (Jitterbug) on this footage. Directed by Gjon Mili and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.
Tenor saxophonist Lester Young was a gentle man tossed about by a turbulent world. Though the jazz he loved provided him with a safe harbor, ultimately it was not enough, and the vicissitudes of life gradually wore him down. What remains is his music. In hundreds of recorded solos, his easy-going melodic invention and warmly whispered tone testify to a man of great heart and soul, who used his art to turn pain into beauty. Young was born 1909, in Woodville, Missouri. He spent his childhood living near New Orleans, and in 1919, his father, Willis Handy Young, a multi-talented musician, moved the family north to Minneapolis. Willis taught all his children to play instruments, and organized them into a family band, which played at carnivals, fairs, and theaters. Lester learned to play drums, violin, and trumpet, before settling on saxophone. However, as Lester grew older, he and his father found themselves increasingly at odds. In 1927, the two fought over Lester's romantic involvement with an older carnival worker named Clara. Willis slapped Lester, who in turn ran away with Clara. He returned shortly, but later that year, Willis proposed taking the band on a tour of the South. Lester harbored memories of the South as a place of racism, oppression, and humiliation, and refused to go. He left the band for good, and at 18, he was on the road, fending for himself as a Jazz musician. Those were the days of the "territory bands," groups of eight or ten musicians who made their livings playing dance halls and nightclubs in a specific geographic region. Young played with many of these bands, including one of the best--Walter Page's "Blue Devils." None of the bands Young played in had recording contracts, or appeared on the radio. They lived hand-to-mouth, driving during the day from town to town, and playing music all night. Still, they were working, and as the Depression gained momentum, that was enough. During these years, Young developed a distinctive style, and gained a formidable reputation among his fellow musicians. At the time, most tenor saxophonists were imitating the style of Coleman Hawkins, the undisputed king of the instrument. Hawkins' playing was boisterous and driving, and his sound was rich with overtones and vibrato. Young's playing was almost diametrically opposed: his melodic lines danced gracefully along, never in any hurry, and his sound was soft and mellow in the lower registers, while his higher notes were clear and delicate. He was a butterfly to Hawkins' bumblebee. Quiet and affectionate, with a sly sense of humor, Young was a natural ladies man. In 1930, he met a young woman named Bess Cooper, and after a brief courtship, the two married. Bess was white and Jewish, and interracial marriages were almost unheard of at the time, but Young was not one to let societal conventions circumscribe his life. The following year a daughter, Beverly, was born. Tragically, Bess died shortly after giving birth, and Young, unable to take an infant on the road with him, turned Beverly over to the Cooper family. For the rest of his life, Young would visit Beverly, when his schedule allowed, and sometimes even took her out on the road with him. When the "Blue Devils" disbanded near the end of 1933, Young invited himself to audition for Count Basie's Orchestra, one of the top bands in the nation. The men in Basie's hard-swinging Kansas City outfit were wild about Young's radical new sound, and it seemed he had a new home. But he left Basie's band a few months later to join Fletcher Henderson's band-as a replacement for none other than Coleman Hawkins. It was a disaster. The musicians wouldn't accept Young's sound, and when the disagreements became vituperative, Young departed. He wandered again for a while, but in 1936 he hooked back up with Basie, and the next four years were maybe the happiest of his life. Kansas City, during the mid-1930s, was a wide-open town. Run by Tom Pendergast, a politician with strong ties to organized crime, it was bursting with gambling joints, brothels, night clubs, gin-mills and other places where music was in demand. Also, the men in the Basie band were ideally suited to each other, and to life on the road. Young would later recall that, in those days, everybody looked forward to going to work. When they weren't playing the music they loved, they were shooting dice, enjoying libations, pursuing romantic adventures, or simply enjoying each other's company. Young occupied some of his off-hours by pitching for the band's baseball team, and pursuing a romance with Margaret Johnson, a young pianist who sometimes sat in the band. Later in 1936, the band signed a record contract and moved east to New York. Among the songs they recorded were "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Taxi War Dance"-both of which feature great solos by Young. Because of their raw, bluesy sound, the Basie band's records were marketed only in African-American neighborhoods. Nevertheless, they sold well, and Young enjoyed his first national exposure. During that time, Young also recorded with a small group called the Kansas City Seven, and fine examples of his playing with that band can be heard on "Dickie's Dream" and "Lester Leaps In." In 1937, Lester recorded his first tracks with Billie Holiday, a young singer who sometimes worked with the Basie band, and whose solo career was just about to take flight. The pair shared a wistful sense of melancholy and an ever-alert melodic creativity that makes the numbers they recorded together-like "Mean To Me" and "This Year's Kisses"-essential listening. They continued to work together occasionally for the rest of their lives, and shared much more than music. Though, by all accounts, their relationship remained platonic, they sometimes lived together and always loved each other. It was Young who christened Holiday "Lady Day," and she in return gave him the title "Pres." The world at large was told that "Pres" was short for "President of the Tenor Saxophone," but in actuality the name was short for "President of the Viper's Club." A "Viper," in 1930s hipster lingo, was a marijuana devotee-which Young certainly was. Not all of Young's relationships in 1937 were platonic, however. Between recording sessions and engagements, he met and fell in love with a young nurse of Italian descent named Mary. Soon, Young had moved in with her, and although they never officially married, they lived together long enough to become common law husband and wife. The relationship was often stormy, and Young sometimes succumbed to the amorous temptations that surround musicians on the road. Mary sometimes toured with him, but travel was difficult for an interracial couple in the 1930s, with hotels and restaurants often refusing to accommodate them. Despite the personal and societal adversities, the couple was generally happy, and stayed together until 1945.
Things cooled off for the Basie band in 1940, and Young left, hoping to lead a small group of his own. He teamed up with his brother, Lee Young, a drummer who, with the exception of his musical talent and his love of baseball, was quite different than Lester. Lee was outgoing, energetic, well organized, and an excellent band manager. For most of the next three years, the two toured with a variety of small groups, but in 1943, Lester returned to his musical home in the Basie band.
This, his final stint with the band was, in terms of fame and critical accolade, his most successful. The public-or at least the jazz-loving segment of it-aside from being enchanted by his playing, also found Young to be an endearing personality. Always a strong individualist, he now gained the reputation of being something of an eccentric-indeed, in the public's mind he was perhaps the quintessential way-out hipster jazzman. Some of his quirks were visual. For instance, he held his saxophone at an odd, almost horizontal, angle, instead of straight up and down like other saxophonists. He also always wore a porkpie hat, and this flat-topped, wide-brimmed chapeau-along with finely tailored, but severely rumpled suits-became his sartorial trademark. But it was his inventive use of words that really caught the public's imagination. He went well beyond the usual jazz lingo, and at times seemed to be speaking a language of his own. His saxophone keys were "people," an old girlfriend was a "wayback," a narcotics officer was a "bob crosby"-he even started the use of the term "bread" for money. Critics, during this time, were also charmed by Young's personality, but more importantly, they were finally able to accept his unique style, and, in 1944, he was named the year's top tenor saxophonist in Down Beat magazine. Although jazz was not as popular among the general public as the Swing band music played by white orchestras, Young was about as famous as a jazz man could be in the late 1940s.
But Young was also receiving notices of a less benign sort. The United States was at war, and Young was 35 years old, which made him eligible for military service. Never one to confront a problem if it could be avoided, he ignored the draft notices that were mailed to him. But one night in September of 1944, after playing an engagement, he was nabbed by a plainclothes Army official. Thus was the inauspicious beginning of his military career, which he later would remember as a mad nightmare. Young was stationed in the Deep South-a place he had feared and avoided, because of its racial policies, since childhood. Moreover, he was by nature completely incompatible with military discipline. (Indeed, at his induction examination, he told the conducting Army physician that he had smoked marijuana everyday since 1933.) To make a bad situation worse, he was quickly arrested for marijuana possession, court martialed, and sentenced to a disciplinary center. There he was subjected to severe physical abuse. The guards, he would later say, liked to practice drum rolls on his head. Though he suffered no permanent physical damage, the emotional scars lasted for the rest of his life.
When Young was dishonorably discharged in 1945, he came home to a world that had radically changed. In the relatively brief time that he had been away, the new style of Be Bop had taken the jazz world by storm. The gently swinging music that Young played was now out of favor, and work was hard to come by for big bands and small groups alike. There seemed to be a whole new generation of young players competing for engagements and recording contracts. Ironically, many of the young lions-including Be Bop pioneer Charlie Parker-counted Young as one of their most prominent influences. That these newcomers, who in many cases were simply aping his style, were making good money while he struggled, caused Young considerable grief. To top it off, the critics now wrote him off as old hat.
Young began to rely more on alcohol to ease his pain. He became withdrawn, and though he was never completely bitter, it was clear to his friends that he was disenchanted with life. But in 1946, he was asked to appear in Jazz at the Philharmonic-a wildly successful annual package tour of jazz legends. For the next ten years, these annual tours were the heart of his career, though he also continued to play clubs and record. Though word had spread that his post-army playing was diminished, the recordings from this period show that his style had continued to evolve, and that his solos were as creative, agile, and soulful as ever. Nevertheless, he was dissatisfied, drinking heavily, and aware that his best years were in the past. In 1946, he and his common law wife, Mary, split up. Ironically, in that same year, he met, fell in love with, and married another woman, also named Mary. Lester was happy again, and for a short while cut back on his alcohol consumption. In 1947, Mary gave birth to a son, Lester, Jr.; and a daughter, Yvette, followed in 1956. But eventually, Young's drinking reasserted itself, and by 1958, Mary, who had been incredibly nurturing, could no longer stand to see Young destroy himself. They split up. Young didn't want to be alone, however, and later in 1958, a jazz-fan named Elaine Swain moved in with him, and accompanied him through the last months of his life. In January of 1959, Young traveled to Paris to play a long engagement at the Blue Note Club. But in March, he suffered alcohol-related stomach problems and flew home. On the plane the pain was so severe, he bit through his lip. Later that month he died of a heart attack. Young is buried in Brooklyn. His saxophone is on display at the Smithsonian institution. He lives wherever jazz is heard.