4) The Power of Vulnerability
Lester Young Centennial, originally posted August 27, 2009
2) Oh, Lady!
10) Further Reading
Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, and Lennie Tristano took their Youngian influence only from pre-1941 Lester Young, not from anything Young recorded later. Since Charlie Parker was formed by 1941 or so, he limited his sourcing to this era as well. I’m certain that Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, and many others also learned canonical Basie and Holiday-era Young solos, often in preference to later work. Thad Jones discusses in Büchmann-Møller about how much all those Basie 78’s meant -- not just to him, but to his whole Detroit scene.
This early work simply has Young’s greatest playing on medium and medium-up tempos. With those solos, he gave a jazz a way of phrasing eighth-notes that is still in use today.
After this youthful ebullience was done, Young’s tone darkened and he didn’t play as fast. His beat remained basically the same – I’ve never heard a phrase played by the President that didn’t swing – but his lines at tempo are more careful and less effortless. He’s therefore less obviously charismatic and less obviously appropriated.
But in at least one respect, his music got better after 1941, when he helped several popular standards reach their instrumental zenith. “These Foolish Things,” “I Can’t Get Started,” “Ghost of a Chance,” “She’s Funny That Way” and “Polkadots and Moonbeams” are among the romantic ballads transformed into vessels of hurt, languid eroticism when played by Lester Young. (For those planning a seduction, these titles make an excellent playlist.) There’s no doubt he learned this temperature from Billie Holiday, but actually their early records together don’t showcase that emotion as much as his solo ballads do.
That temperature seeped into his whole existence and is the basis of the unshakable Lester Young mystique. If he had died in 1941, would Young have had the same status as lonely poet? Probably not. He would be more like Jimmy Blanton, Scott LaFaro, or Booker Little in our collective mind, a genius gone too soon.
As far as I can tell, Young didn’t wear a porkpie hat yet in 1941. That porkpie – accompanied by the obligatory cigarette – would become the quintessential visual image of Lester Young. You can see that romantic conception during the opening shot of the popular 1944 short "Jammin’ the Blues." First there is the hat and the smoke, then the tenor saxophone is lifted and the lonely musician attempts to make sense of it all from within the haze of smoke and uncertainty.
"Jammin’ the Blues" was an early example of Hollywood treating African Americans solely as artists, not as servants or as mugging entertainers. Black America watched with interest, especially Black jazz musicians:
Charles Mingus wrote and recorded “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” immediately after Young’s death in 1959.
Sonny Rollins doesn’t quote any Young phrases in his solos, but I hear “languid eroticism” in his “I Can’t Get Started” at the Vanguard with Wilbur Ware and Elvin Jones. Also, some of the “crazy” behaviors Rollins is famous for – showing up with a Mohawk, jumping off stages – seems to be influenced by the Young tradition of “strange.”
As I explore further in the next post, Miles Davis got a great deal from both the Porkpie vibe and Young’s music in general.
I don’t mean to make too much of this, but it seems to me that the innovative white musicians in the aftermath of bebop (Tristano, Marsh, Konitz) were careful to take from the (pre-icon) Young the “pure improvisation in rhythm” whereas their contemporary innovative black musicians (Rollins, Mingus, Davis) took the “far-out sadness and poetry” on display after 1940. I pass no qualitative judgment: everybody was right to do exactly what they did, and we are all better off for their efforts. The ultimate mix of all these factors (and the way the musicians mixed themselves) is of course is very subtle, and the last thing I’m trying to do is reduce to stereotypes.
However, one of the themes I’m interesting in exploring is the impact of race on jazz (regular DTM readers are familiar with this riff) and the case of Lester Young is fertile ground. Thanks to Douglas Henry Daniels for alerting me to Young’s iconic status in the black community in the 1940’s: This post would not have had this angle without his influence. (Golson and Jimmy Heath saw "Jammin’ the Blues" early and were impressed with not just the music, but the whole package.)
The iconic image of Lester Young as hurt poet is understood well enough in our society that a fairly mainstream movie, Round Midnight, is partly based on that mystique. Joni Mitchell’s words to Charles Mingus’s “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” (including vocalese to John Handy’s tenor solo) also refer to that poetic feeling.
Less well-known is how the other musicians on the bandstand responded to that atmosphere, especially after 1941. Listen again to that medium-tempo 1946 solo Lester Young takes after Charlie Parker on “Lady Be Good.” Young is strong, but not alone: he asks for help.
Not every jazz soloist dares to have this vulnerability. No matter where, what, or with whom, Charlie Parker could strap on the alto saxophone and burn. I’m not saying that Bird didn’t care about the band, but he clearly didn’t need a good band to sound good himself. On the JATP performance of LBG the musicians are a solid B team. Parker is happy to ignore them and deliver his incredible time, matchless harmonic concept, and deep blues feeling more or less alone on stage.
When Lester Young follows Parker, he displays none of that certainty. He doesn’t sound weak, but he does sound vulnerable. He sounds like he’s asking the band, “Are we in this together?” or, “How do you feel tonight?” Almost every track of Young’s great pre-1941 work has Walter Page and Jo Jones. It remains some of the best feeling music ever made. Those musicians must have had incredible trust, assurance, love, and concern for each other. And even after that era was finished, I hear Young extend that kind of concern to his band on every record. “Are you cool?”
Bird and Pres together in 1946: Bird has the solo that was chosen for inclusion in the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. But who gets the better performance out of the band?
It’s interesting to consider those 50’s and later players who were more vulnerable like Pres or impervious like Bird: Stan Getz, for example, despite basing his style on Young, was always unworriedly confident. Ornette is impervious; Don Cherry and Dewey Redman were vulnerable. Coltrane and Wayne Shorter both seem to have some vulnerability, but Sonny Rollins is the most confident of anybody. Herbie Hancock asks questions of the rhythm section, McCoy Tyner knows the answers. (I’m not making qualitative judgments! All these musicians are brilliant.)
Most of Young’s post-1941 work in the studio was as a leader. His bands are almost always good and are obviously asked to join in the experience of music-making – not just to keep a star soloist happy and otherwise be quiet. Comparison with his great competitor Coleman Hawkins is interesting: the backing on Hawkins’s famous ballads “Body and Soul” and “How Deep Is the Ocean” -- to say nothing of the Hawkins LBG I transcribed! -- are not that involving (to me, anyway). But Young signature ballads like “These Foolish Things” with Dodo Marmarosa or “Ghost of a Chance” with Basie and Freddie Green feature dreamy accompaniment.
Young didn’t like piano players who looked for complicated harmonic solutions or loud drummers. (I think I hear him musically asking Nick Fatool to turn down on that jam-session LBG.) But since his music making does ask questions, opens the circle to everyone on stage, and demands a collective spirit, he gets some of the best recorded performances out of his fellow musicians. In addition to all the Basieites and Billie Holiday, consider the lesser known but significant Johnny Guarnieri, Joe Bushkin, Shadow Wilson, and Sid Catlett. I hardly know every record of these musicians, but I’d be very surprised if their sessions with Young didn’t feature some of their finest playing. [Footnote: Roy Haynes and Sid Catlett] Even frankly B-level musicians can sound good playing with Young.
However, the recordings only tell a fraction of the story. I’m certain that live, Young was obviously always connected to his band. He was there to improvise and swing, and wanted everybody to join him in this mission and express themselves too.
I’m also certain that the premier bandleader of the 1950’s paid attention to this bandstand attitude.