Lester’s Dream

The Lester Young Band, 1941, Kelly’s Stables, NYC

Is there any point in asking a question that can never be answered? The question in question is this: why did Lester Young’s style change suddenly and dramatically in 1942? It can never be answered because Lester never addressed it directly, leaving only hints, and few of those.

Absent definitive answers, all I have to offer is the story of my attempts to understand this stylistic change. Whatever value this may have rests on the fact that I’ve been chewing over the evidence for a long, long time.

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Why did Lester Young’s style change suddenly and dramatically in 1942?

In recent times, biographers have failed to tackle this question or even raise it. In one regard, this is an improvement, because the rote answer given by jazz critics for decades has always been wrong. Lester’s wartime persecution at the hands of the United States Army had nothing to do with it.

Simplistic answers are made easier by a clear dividing line. Lester left the Count Basie Orchestra on December 13th, 1940, and his studio recordings sputtered to a halt on April 3rd, 1941. When the silence broke, on July 15th, 1942, Lester’s style had changed completely.

Or had it? The change is surprisingly difficult to quantify. Analysis of notes on the page wouldn’t reveal any substantial harmonic or rhythmic differences. Comparisons of phrasing and articulation reveal no radical alterations. And yet the overall effect is so strikingly different that some listeners and critics dismiss everything Lester did after 1941.

The possible reasons behind Lester’s stylistic change are equally difficult to quantify. If there are any answers at all, they exist only in the aggregate, with no single factor of paramount importance.

For simplicity’s sake, I will refer to Lester’s early work as 30s Lester and the period after his stylistic change as 40s Lester. But I don’t want to oversimplify these terms. 30s Lester was by no means all of a piece. His style was evolving throughout the 1930s, right up to the 1941 dividing line.

(Note: any reference to the Basie years means 1936 through 1940.)

What’s more, there’s every reason to believe that Lester had gone through one or two mature styles prior to his first recordings, which were made at age 27. What Lester sounded like in his formative years will never be known, barring a discovery on the order of the Dead Sea scrolls. Continued evolution is also quite apparent in 40s Lester, and another stylistic change takes place in 50s Lester.

Most importantly, though, this is the way Lester viewed his own development, as expressed emphatically and profanely in an interview given shortly before his death, in 1959:

So I’ve developed my saxophone to play it, to make it sound just like a alto, make it sound like a tenor, to make it sound like a bass, and everything, and I’m not through working on it yet. That’s why they get all trapped up, they go, “Goddamn, I never heard him play like this!” That’s the way I want things! That’s modern, dig? Fuck what you played back in forty-nine, what the fuck you gonna play today?

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I discovered jazz in high school through my stepfather’s collection of 78s, starting with Benny Goodman. Wandering unguided, fortune led me to Lester’s recordings with Billie Holiday. I had never heard anything more beautiful in all my life. I quickly sought out his Basie recordings, which were equally beautiful in different ways.

In the age of vinyl, the cutout bin was a valuable resource, and I was willing to bet a couple of bucks on a Lester Young album. That’s when I was confronted with 50s Lester, through a random live bootleg. For me, the difference was stark.

Everything about 30s Lester was superhuman: the originality, the spontaneity, the drive, the swing, the perfection. And, above all else, the sound, as pure and as luminescent as moonlight.

50s Lester was painfully mortal, struggling with intonation and execution and breath support, moonlight replaced by fog, playing to a cluster of obnoxious drunks and one mad whistler. Everything about it seemed sad, and it left me open to the received wisdom that 30s Lester was the peak, and that all that followed was a drawn-out decline and a tragic end.

And yet something kept bringing me back to that record. For all its infirmities, Lester’s playing was compelling in its logic and feeling. He didn’t seem to be talking about himself or expressing everyday emotions. He seemed to be talking about life, in all its mystery and complexity. It was beautiful, but it was a sad kind of beauty, and I would only visit 50s Lester once in a while.

After all, why spend time there when 30s Lester delivered a jolt of pure joy and inspiration in every solo, from the opening bars of Shoe Shine Boy (November 9th, 1936) to the closing bars of Broadway (November 19th, 1040)?  There was so much vitality to explore in that four-year span that listening to 50s Lester felt like visiting a dying friend.

Shoe Shine Boy November 9th, 1936

Broadway November 19th, 1940

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When Lester says he made his saxophone sound like an alto, this is presumably a description of his sound during the Basie years. Other musicians even used the term “alto tone” to describe Lester’s sound, and not always as a compliment. Billie Holiday reported that Lester was insecure about his tone and needed her reassurance. She also reported the following exchange between Lester and fellow tenor saxophonist Herschel Evans, a Coleman Hawkins disciple:

Herschel: Why don’t you go buy an alto, man? You only got an alto tone.

Lester (tapping his forehead): There’s things going on up here, man. Some of you guys are all belly.

During his stint with Fletcher Henderson in 1934, where he took over Hawkins’ chair, Lester’s sound was rejected out of hand by the entire band, which wounded him deeply. For his part, he rejected the idea that he should sound like anybody other than himself. Always soft spoken, he phrased it as a question: “Why should I blow like someone else?” 

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In time, having worn the grooves off of every 30s record I could find, I decided to explore Lester’s later work. I had been marinating myself in Bird, hence I was familiar with some 40s Lester through Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP), so I started there. 

As an impressionable teen, I had read Bird Lives, Ross Russell’s reprehensible Charlie Parker biography, swallowing whole its unforgivable lies. This is where I first heard the trope that Lester’s wartime traumas caused his change in style. Russell has the nerve to plant this misconception inside Bird’s thoughts, an appalling fabrication among many.

The setting is the JATP concert at Philharmonic Hall in Los Angeles, held on January 28th, 1946. It’s certainly true that Lester had recently been released after ten months in an Army detention barracks in the Deep South, but the truth ends there. Russell has Bird listening from the wings with increasing dismay as he discovers that his childhood idol is now a shattered man whose playing is just short of pathetic.

Regrettably, this affected my own interpretation of Lester’s playing. I heard what Russell had told me to hear: Lester’s sound had lost the purity of his Basie years; his sweeping lines had been hobbled; his kinetic sprinting had been reduced to dolorous wandering. Not as sad as 50s Lester, maybe, but no source of inspiration, either. More regrettably, this conception of 40s Lester clouded my judgment for decades.

I can’t blame Russell entirely, or myself, for that matter. Even more enlightened jazz critics hold that 40s Lester wasn’t the same person as 30s Lester. If he no longer felt the joy so evident in his Basie years, they argue, then small wonder the joy went out of his music in the 40s. We are advised to take consolation in the melancholy of his ballad playing, the only change considered an improvement.

In light of all this, I set out to answer two questions: why did Lester leave Basie, and what happened during his fifteen month absence from the recording studio?  

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Lester lived by a gentleman’s code, it would seem, that precluded speaking ill of others. On the subject of why he left Basie, his lips were sealed, his most direct answer being: “That’s some deep shit you’re asking me now.”

But possible reasons abound. The band was going through a rough patch in terms of management and touring schedules, and personal tensions between band members were high. Lester had also been refused a raise, despite being the undisputed star of the band. And the nature of the music itself was changing, consigning him to shorter and shorter solos. He failed to show up for a recording session on December 13th, 1940, leading to his dismissal, and just like that his Basie days were over. 

Lester’s first attempt at bandleading got off to a good start. He formed his own six-piece group and took up residence at the prestigious Kelly’s Stables, replacing, ironically, Coleman Hawkins. Just a few weeks into the gig, though, Lester had a run-in with one of the waiters that led to an ugly exchange of words. Racism was a factor, and Lester, deeply insulted, refused to play there anymore.

The band made one studio recording of limited scope in March 1941, backing up vocalist Una Mae Carlisle, and Lester was also hired for a session with Billie Holiday. On April 3rd, he recorded four tunes with a pickup group billed as Sam Price and his Texas Blusicians, and then recording work dried up for good.

With no manager and no business skills of his own, Lester had to disband his group. He fell back on playing for tips in Harlem, at Minton’s and Monroe’s Uptown House. In May, he moved to Los Angeles to work for his younger brother Lee, an excellent drummer and capable businessman who had the bandleading skills Lester lacked.

Given all that, it’s not unreasonable to view Lester’s decision to leave Basie as a disaster, and his move to Los Angeles as a form of exile.

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It’s only natural, I suppose, that I would look at Lester’s life through the lens of my own experience. In my twenties, I overestimated my own independence a number of times. Believing I needed no one, I pulled up stakes and moved to new places, giving no thought to whom or what I was leaving behind. The immediate result was depression, and eventually I figured out that removing myself from my social structure wasn’t such a great idea.

These experiences shaped my working hypothesis. Was Lester’s melancholy a matter of clinical depression? Did he underestimate how much he needed the structure of the Basie band to maintain his exuberant attitude toward life?

Since the mid-30s, the Basie band had been Lester’s home and family, more or less literally. They accepted his eccentricities and deeply respected his playing, which wasn’t necessarily true of the world at large, including many jazz musicians. He was a genius, well ahead of his time, for which there is always a price to be paid, and his feelings were easily damaged.

I could picture Lester deeply depressed in LA, exiled from the Basie band and the hip New York jazz scene, his radical style incomprehensible to not-so-hip West Coast audiences, surviving on charity from his brother, forced to insert himself through nepotism into an inferior band that likely resented the intrusion.

It seemed like a sound hypothesis.

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Lee Young’s Esquires of Rhythm already had a steady gig before Lester arrived in May 1941. Billy Berg operated a series of LA nightclubs throughout the 40s, rolling with the punches in an unstable business. Lee was working at the Club Capris when Lester first joined. That shut down for reasons unknown, but Berg soon opened a new club, the Trouville, and immediately rehired Lee’s group, now known as the Lee and Lester Young Band. After that came the Swing Club, and then he opened yet another club, Billy Berg’s, where Bird and Diz debuted their radical music in December 1945.

Due to union rules, there was a waiting period before Lester could join as a full member of the Esquires of Rhythm. Until then, he could only play three tunes per set, and did so standing on the floor in front of the band, as he was prohibited from playing on the bandstand. He spent his considerable downtime seated on a milk crate backstage, sipping straight spirits from the bottle and playing a card game called “tonk.” 

Lee already had a tenor player in the band before Lester joined, Hubert “Bumps” Myers, and he kept Bumps on, so the group had two tenors. By all accounts, Bumps could really play, and he was a hometown hero in LA. Unsurprisingly, he played very much in the Hawkins style, so Lester was once again being judged against the Hawkins model. That in itself must have been disheartening, without Bumps being declared the winner by audiences and critics alike.

In May, shortly after the band moved to the Trouville, Billie Holiday came west and sang with them for two months. How this affected Lester is impossible to know, but at the very least she must have been a reminder of better times, when fortune smiled and an exciting future beckoned. Times when he was seldom seated on milk crates, getting drunk and waiting to play.

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This brings us to the doorstep of the July 15, 1942 recording date.

Dave Gelly’s biography, Lester Young, published in the UK in 1984, has much to recommend it, despite some inaccuracies. He grapples directly with the change in Lester’s sound, which he calls “profound and disturbing.” He describes it in detail:

[Lester] plays with a kind of wistful absent-mindedness quite unlike the energetic, youthful sound which had popped like a cork out of the Basie ensemble. The new tone is heavier, with a certain amount of edge, and the articulation is not quite so sharp. Along with this comes a kind of reflective diffidence in phrasing and far less of the long, flowing line which had been Lester’s most notable attribute in the thirties. 

Gelly goes on to search for practical and physical reasons for this change and finds no obvious suspects. He does, however, note a change in mouthpieces, from the metal Otto Link of the Basie years, to a Brilhart Ebolin.

Gelly’s book was the only Lester biography I owned for many years, and there is no question that it colored my perceptions, especially in regard to the July ‘42 recording session. Gelly told me what I was supposed to hear, so I heard it, and it’s difficult to start over with a clean slate. I can’t get past my initial perception of a feeble sound, lackluster lines, and an underlying melancholy devoid of inspiration.

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The Lee and Lester Young Band became quite a success in LA, which led to a booking in New York City, at the Café Society Downtown, where they opened on September 1st, 1942. The band was a hit, and the original one-month engagement was extended time and again.

Lester had returned from exile with a splash, but the gig came to an abrupt end when Lee and Lester’s father, Willis Young, died, on February 6th, 1943. Their stepmother, Sarah, followed him two weeks later.

Lester had suffered a great deal of loss during this period: the loss of his social structure in the Basie band; the loss of his first gig as a bandleader and the band that went with it; the loss of recording sessions; and now the most irrevocable loss of all.

Before I got the dates straight, I thought that Lester’s father and stepmother had died before the July ‘42 recording session, which would have strengthened my hypothesis. Since their deaths occurred six months afterwards, they clearly played no role. But the death of Herschel Evans probably did.

Herschel, who was Lester’s bandmate, close friend, and musical twin, died of a heart attack on February 9th, 1939. This seems to have been an emotional turning point for Lester, the beginning of his dissatisfaction with his surroundings, which may have served as a constant reminder of this loss. Jo Jones reports that after Herschel’s death, Lester kept his hat and coat under his music stand, ready to bolt the moment the impulse struck. Sometimes they would have to grab him by his coat tails and pull him back down onto his seat.

At this point, my hypothesis seemed to be coming together. I felt ready to make my case. 

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My hypothesis ran as follows:

In the three-year period from 1939 to 1942, Lester Young experienced changes, setbacks, and traumas that brought about episodes of clinical depression. As a result, the joy and vitality that characterized his early playing style was replaced by a profound melancholy, and his playing thereafter lacked the inspiration, creativity, and brilliance of his early work.

Between early 1939 and late 1940, the Basie band encountered difficulties and underwent changes that bruised Lester’s sensitive nature, forcing him to leave. Quitting the band meant leaving behind a social structure that had provided much-needed emotional support, keeping Lester’s hypersensitivity in check and allowing him to fully experience the joy his music so vividly conveyed.

In leaving, Lester seriously overestimated his abilities as a bandleader and businessman. Fate had given him a golden opportunity in replacing Coleman Hawkins at Kelly’s Stables, but his hypersensitivity to racism brought that engagement to a sudden end. It soon became clear that he lacked the interpersonal skills and business acumen to find work elsewhere, and this forced him to disband his group.

The depression that might have resulted from leaving Basie had been held at bay by the excitement of forming a new band. Now, with no band, no work, and no recording contracts, depression descended in full, robbing him of whatever resilience he might have otherwise possessed. Incapable of decisive action, he was reduced to playing for tips at Harlem jam sessions.

Lester could see only one way out of this crisis: he turned to his younger brother Lee for help. The two were not particularly close, the age difference was significant, and they were opposites in personality. Lee was a respected drummer but by no means the genius that Lester was. Turning to him for work was humbling at best, and a measure of Lester’s diminished sense of self-worth.

Lester hadn’t lived in New York City for very long, but he thrived on its music scene, and he would adopt it as his home in later years. Now he was forced to leave it for Los Angeles, in many respects New York’s opposite, not least because West Coast audiences and musicians lagged behind in their acceptance of new trends. Lester’s style wasn’t fully accepted even in New York. 

One of Lester’s frustrations in the Basie band had been the increasing lack of solo space. As a bandleader, he had been able (briefly) to give himself as much solo space as he pleased. Now, he was a sideman again, and a redundant one at that, given that Bumps Myers had stayed on. Having two tenor players in the band also affected the amount of solo space, and the waiting period, as dispiriting as it was absurd, robbed him of even more.

Inevitably, Lester’s personal style was met with incomprehension. That was depressing enough, without the nightly popularity contest with Bumps Myers to drive home the rejection. The only thing audiences wanted to hear from Lester, it seems, were ballads.

Lester was not known as a drinker in his Basie days, but now, a prophet without honor, he began self-medicating with hard liquor, the worst possible remedy for depression, starting down the road toward the alcoholism that would kill him at age 49.

It was under these conditions that Lester limped into the July 15th, 1942 recording date, a wounded man groping his way through the fog of depression, unable to recreate by half the life-affirming playing of his glory days, which had ended only two years earlier.

It was a sound hypothesis. It only had one flaw: it was wrong.

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Lester may have been absent from the studio for 15 months, but live recordings have surfaced that fill in this gap in tantalizing ways. I had no idea they existed until relatively recently, and they blow my hypothesis out of the water.

On one hand, their existence makes it even harder to understand why recent biographers gloss over Lester’s stylistic change. On the other, the recordings reveal a continuity to this change that makes it considerably less striking.

First things first. We now have a handful of live recordings of the Lee and Lester Young Band, from ‘41 and ‘42, and Lester is playing his ass off! Furthermore, he seems to be the driving force behind the band.

It’s worth noting that there isn’t a lot of evidence here. These airchecks are short, three-minute songs, with a sound quality that ranges from just okay to voyage-to-the-bottom-of-the-sea. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Lester’s sound is as powerful as ever.

Benny’s Bugle, an early aircheck, is definitely from the Club Capris era, as stated at the end of the broadcast. I’m disappointed that there are no solos from Bumps Myers to be heard here, but the head is played in unison by all three horns (two tenors and trumpet) plus guitar, and displays the band’s forceful sound. It’s possible this track was captured during the waiting period, making it one of Lester’s three featured tunes per set. Tightly executed ensemble passages alternate with wide open spaces, and Lester gobbles up everything.

Benny’s Bugle December 2nd, 1941

But it’s later broadcasts from the Trouville that were the death knell for my hypothesis. In addition to a single number, Frolic Sam, from May 6th, 1942, Lester also solos on four tunes from a June 1st, 1942, aircheck. The momentum he generated in his Basie years is still in evidence, albeit in an earthier form. The notion that he could have lost this ability somehow between June 1st and July 15th is just silly.

Frolic Sam May 6th, 1942

The sound quality is wretched on the Trouville broadcast, but you can still get a clear sense of how dynamic the group was. Its seven members manage to invoke the sound of an entire big band. Apparently Gerald Wilson and Billy Strayhorn did some arranging for the group, and the quality is certainly up to that level. As to Lester’s tone, a surfeit of surface noise makes it difficult to tell whether or not he has changed mouthpieces. He still sounds like 30s Lester in some ways, but differences are clear.

These differences didn’t appear out of the blue. In his final recording session with the Count Basie Orchestra, which produced Broadway, we can discern the changes that had taken place gradually during his tenure. His sound has grown darker, his range has skewed lower, and his phrasing has shifted toward the back of the beat. These are the foremost characteristics of 40s Lester, so it’s important to note that these changes were underway while he was still with Basie.

In a 1950 article by Leonard Feather, Lester offered his own description of this shift toward the back of the beat. The subject under discussion was the birth of modern jazz in the early 40s, and Lester called the shift: “a lag-along style where you relax instead of hitting everything on the nose.” He said this in reference to Charlie Christian and Bird, but he seemed to be speaking about himself, as well.  

The three studio dates Lester made before moving to LA document his post-Basie sound, as do other airchecks. The recording session that best captured this sensuous tone was the March 10th, 1941 date with vocalist Una Mae Carlisle, which produced Beautiful Eyes. Lester couldn’t be more languorous, having checked all rhythmic drive at the door. Pure, concentrated beauty is the goal, and his Beautiful Eyes solo represents the zenith in that regard.

Beautiful Eyes March 10th, 1941

A close second would be his All Of Me solo from the March 21st date with Billie. Airchecks from his Kelly’s Stables group also capture this serenely magnificent sound, so rich you could eat it with a spoon.

All Of Me March 21st, 1941

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If Lester cultivated the alto sound he refers to in the 1930s, it stands to reason that he cultivated the tenor sound in the 1940s. As noted above, it’s surprisingly difficult to quantify the changes in style on a rhythmic and harmonic level. The change is in Lester’s overall sound. It’s almost as though he’s playing a different instrument, and in a sense he is, because he has, I believe, consciously transitioned from his “alto sound” to his “tenor sound,” which, among other things, placed a greater emphasis on the low end of his range.

The first studio recording Lester made upon his return from LA was a Dicky Wells session on December 21st, 1943, and he’s on fire from beginning to end. There’s a conceptual throughline that connects this date to the Trouville airchecks and reveals how anomalous the July 15th, 1942 date really was.

The key difference on July 15th was the format: a drummerless trio. The other two musicians, pianist Nat King Cole, and bassist Red Callender, had to hold the time together  without benefit of percussion. As a result, the time was pliable, which had a profound effect on the feeling of the date. The hushed surroundings also affected the character of Lester’s tone, which is delicate to the point of fragility. This isn’t just a question of volume. The 1938 Kansas City Six date was equally quiet, and yet his tone there was supernatural in its fullness.

In my own mind, I am supremely confident that Lester is using a different mouthpiece on July 15th. I’m also willing to propose that the change happened shortly beforehand. Dave Gelly documents the switch from Otto Link to Brilhart Ebolin around this time, and notes that Lester also changed saxophones, from a Conn to a Selmer, but he considers the impact on Lester’s sound negligible:

So, apart from some possible minor effect brought about by switching instrument and mouthpiece, we can rule out a purely mechanical explanation.

Then, in the following paragraph, he eloquently describes the mysterious nature of tone production on the saxophone, a description seemly at odds with the above conclusion:

The [mouthpiece] goes inside the player’s mouth, not far, but it is enough to establish a mysterious intimacy. What goes on inside there? Once the jaws close and the lips form an airtight seal, the sliver of cane and wedge of metal or plastic become a temporary part of the human physiognomy. The diaphragm pushes the lungs, air is expelled, the reed vibrates and its movement resounds in the teeth, the mouth cavity, the intricate labyrinth of sinuses. In that secret place, the saxophone player makes his sound. 

It’s safe to say that switching mouthpieces is how Lester changed his tone. This, however, doesn’t get us any closer to why.

Furthermore, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when Lester made the switch. The photographic evidence is inconclusive. Sometime in 1943, the Link disappears, never to return, replaced by a Brilhart or something similar in appearance. But it’s possible Lester tried other mouthpieces during this critical period, or went back and forth from Link to Brilhart, or even switched between different Links.

I struggle to maintain my confidence about July 15th in the face of one of the most famous of all Lester photographs. It was taken in the fall of 1942, during the Café Society gig, and shows him still playing a Link! 

In my opinion, though, the aural evidence is conclusive. On Indiana, the first track recorded, two choked off notes are heard early in Lester’s melody statement, a flaw unthinkable in the 30s. Something similar happens in Body And Soul, along with a couple of squawks. I consider this evidence that he’s still in the process of adjusting to a new mouthpiece.

Indiana July 15th, 1942

Body And Soul July 15th, 1942

While we’re at it, Body And Soul is an audacious choice, given that Coleman Hawkins’ 1939 recording had just taken the jazz world by storm. Comparisons had dogged Lester throughout his life, and yet he seemed to be inviting them. What was he trying to say? Here’s one possibility: I’ve developed my saxophone to make it sound like a tenor! Now compare me to Hawkins!   

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In his post-Basie period, Lester seems in earnest pursuit of this new tenor sound and he must have decided the Link couldn’t deliver it. It’s true that his voluptuous tone in this period has a muffled quality. Photographs reveal he was experimenting with an unusual embouchure around this time, an indication, perhaps, of last ditch efforts to get the sound he wanted out of the Link.

To my ears, Lester has already arrived at a gorgeous tenor sound by the time of the Una Mae Carlisle date, where his tone is pure velvet. Obviously, though, he wasn’t satisfied, perhaps because the tone lacked edge. On the April ‘41 Sam Price date, where Lester is further from the microphone, this velvet tone sounds much darker, as though he’s standing in the shadows behind the rest of the band.

I’ve concluded, to my own satisfaction, that July 15th was a one-off, and not the benchmark of a new style. How Lester played depended on his surroundings, and this session was unique in every way. It was even unique technologically. Norman Granz recorded the trio for his own private collection using twelve inch discs, which had a five minute running time. They weren’t intended for commercial release, at least in the near term. At the time, then, few people knew they existed. They entered the timeline long after the fact. 

In hindsight, we can see that they mark the midpoint of a much larger arc. As far as the record buying public was concerned, Lester exited the recording studio on April 2nd, 1941, and didn’t return until December 21st, 1943, two years, eight months, and nineteen days later.

Trying to understand what happened in the fifteen months between April ‘41 and July ‘42 is problematic enough. The period from July ‘42 to December ‘43 is even longer, seventeen months, with no recordings of any kind to fill the void.

At times, even Lester’s whereabouts were unknown. After the Lee and Lester band broke up, in February ‘43, he joined the Al Sears band and went on a USO tour, which accounts for some of his time. He appeared intermittently at Harlem jam sessions, and also worked on 52nd Street with the modernist Dizzy Gillespie/Oscar Pettiford group (a telling fact often neglected). But there are still many blanks in the narrative.

This long, undocumented period came to an end in December ‘43, when Lester rejoined Count Basie. Shortly thereafter, he returned to the studio for the Dicky Wells date. By this time, of course, his stylistic transition was long over. We simply have to accept that much of it took place in a black box and will never be documented. Needless to say, any discussion of mouthpieces would be sheer fantasy.

This makes the Trouville airchecks even more valuable. Despite the yawning gap, I can hear, as noted above, a throughline that connects them to the Wells date. The two styles have much in common, and neither matches Lester’s style on July 15th.

The June 1st, 1942 aircheck from the Trouville Club captured four numbers with solos from Lester: Two versions of Broadway, a second version of Benny’s Bugle, and a heavily arranged rendition of Lady Be Good. At this point, there isn’t much to say that hasn’t been said already. I will sum it up by saying that Lester’s sound here is much closer to “all belly” than “alto tone.”

I have taken the liberty of combining both versions of Broadway into a single track. I’m not convinced they’re from the same date. It seems unlikely that the band would have played a song twice in a single broadcast, and the sound quality differs quite a bit. Otherwise, though, they’re two of a kind.

Broadway June 1st, 1942 (two takes combined)

It’s a stroke of luck to have a second performance of Benny’s Bugle, which allows a before-and-after comparison with the December ‘41 version. This is hindered somewhat by very rough audio quality and the fact that the band has changed keys, from B flat to A flat. Nevertheless, we have 30s Lester and 40s Lester in the closest possible proximity here, a mere six months apart.

Benny’s Bugle December 2nd, 1941

Benny’s Bugle June 1st, 1942

An incomplete solo makes Lady Be Good somewhat disappointing. Lester fades in during the bridge, so we only get twelve bars or so. It’s almost worth skipping, except for one thing: We finally get to hear Bumps Myers! After Lester’s opening solo is through, I believe the remaining three saxophone breaks are handled by Bumps, and he sounds superb. The second break is indisputably Bumps, while the other two are more ambiguous. Just the fact that there’s doubt is a measure of how much Lester and Bumps must have influenced each other. (Note: The trumpet and piano solos have been edited out.)

Lady Be Good June 1st, 1942

The Trouville airchecks make clear that Lester’s stylistic transition happened in the first half of 1942, virtually overnight. Elements of 30s Lester remain, of course, many of which are long gone by December ‘43, but the change is still striking. Again, it’s surprisingly difficult to quantify. If you find yourself wandering through this hall of mirrors, unable to put your finger on what, exactly, has changed, and beginning to wonder if it’s all in your head, just remind yourself that countless listeners and critics dismiss everything Lester did after 1941.

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In my hypothesis, I suggested that Lester’s move to LA made him a stranger in a strange land. That wasn’t the case. Lester had family in LA, starting with his brother, Lee, of course, and his sister, Irma, but also his father and stepmother, who had been living in a house at 1706 Central Avenue since 1936. Lester even gave this as his home address on his Social Security application. Nieces, nephews, and cousins came and went, as well, so the rich social structure of his real family awaited him in LA.

Lester’s influence on modern jazz is often noted, but modern jazz’s influence on Lester less so. All the jamming he did at Minton’s and Monroe’s before leaving for LA wasn’t the waste of time implied in my hypothesis. This was the legendary era of Monk, Dizzy, Charlie Christian, et al. He must have left for LA with a head full of new ideas, and it’s likely he had plenty of time to work them out, possibly while also playing “tonk.”

And he must have resumed jamming in Harlem the moment he returned to New York, in September 1942, which was an equally fertile period that may have included young Charlie Parker. Lester’s solo on I Got Rhythm from December 21st, 1943, alternates between his rhythm and blues vocabulary and phrases that follow the emerging contours of modern jazz. 

I Got Rhythm December 21st, 1943

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Lester’s development continued right up to his kidnapping and torture at the hands of the US Army. Not only that, after they chewed him up and spat him out, further development was evident. Only a few weeks after his dishonorable discharge, he was back onstage at JATP, incorporating modern jazz chromaticism into his style.

Chromaticism began entering his vocabulary prior to his induction, but not to the degree heard at JATP. Thus it would appear that his stylistic development continued even during his incarceration, away from his instrument, just as Bird’s would while locked up at Camarillo.

Speaking of Bird and JATP, if you wish to purge yourself of Ross Russell’s egregious horseshit, check out Lester’s playing on the January 28th, 1946 concert. Not only that, check out his interactions with Bird. I believe sharing the stage held deep meaning for both men.

Bird sounds on edge that day, possibly due to inferior grade LA heroin. His tone is strident and his mood ambivalent, but he creates at least one timeless masterpiece, his solo on Lady Be Good. This song had figured prominently in the lives of both men. Lester’s 1936 Lady Be Good solo, from his very first recording date, is one of the most celebrated in all of jazz history.

Lady Be Good November 9th, 1936

Bird recorded Lady Be Good in 1940, on his very first recording date with Jay McShann, and his opening phrase is a joyous acknowledgement of his debt to Lester.

Lady Be Good December 2nd, 1940

Much had happened to both men in the intervening years, and now they found themselves together onstage at JATP. Was it the first time they’d met since Lester’s discharge? Maybe. But Bird had arrived in LA in December, the same month Lester returned from the Army. Given their love of jam sessions, and the bustling LA scene, who knows how many times their paths might have crossed? Lester addressed this in 1950, saying: “I thought Bird was a genius. We did a little jamming mostly when I was out in California in the forties.” It’s a direct reference to this period.

In any event, this was no doubt their first formal appearance together, and very much in the public eye. If there was ever an occasion for acknowledgements, this was it.

On the opener, Blues For Norman, their solos are too far apart to divine any give-and-take, but Lester’s solo is as joyous as any 30s Lester, if not as untroubled. He had endured his worst nightmare and it would be part of his story from now on, but he sounds elated to be out the other side. Elated and triumphant. (Bird solos much later, with a somewhat frantic abandon, and seems to make a point of quoting Lester Leaps In.)

Blues For Norman January 28th, 1946

Next comes I Can’t Get Started, where Lester and Bird solo back-to-back. Lester goes first, his playing now contemplative. With so much on his mind, he needs two choruses to tell this particular story. There are quite a few moments of chromaticism here, but they’re incidental to the overall design, which is complex.  

Bird solos next. In my opinion, he’s playing to Lester alone, and I believe he performs a miracle. To a remarkable degree, he eschews his own vocabulary in favor of Lester’s, fashioning a solo of pure melodic invention that’s practically a running inventory of all that he’d learned from his idol. As always with Bird, it displays an astonishing balance of intellectual and emotional power. It’s the most heartfelt thank-you note in jazz history.

I Can’t Get Started January 28th, 1946

After that comes Lady Be Good. Bird plays first, transforming Gershwin’s show tune into a blues. Then, after an impromptu bass solo, Lester, in my opinion, replies to Bird’s thank-you note with his own miracle.

He fades in from off-mic, a reminder of his Basie years, and the solo that follows is saturated with chromaticism, especially half step substitutions that create a new emphasis on flat and sharp ninths. In essence, it’s a catalog of all he had absorbed from Bird’s vocabulary, and it’s equal in its intellectual and emotional power. For those inclined to compare it to the 1936 version, perhaps Lester would reply, Fuck what you played back in thirty-six, what the fuck you gonna play today?

Lady Be Good January 28th, 1946

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There is much to marvel at in all of Lester’s solos that day. They are a retroactive rebuke to every jazz critic who ever said the Army destroyed his playing. Does he sound like 30s Lester? No. Perhaps he would reply, I’ve developed my saxophone to make it sound like a tenor!

And, in the last analysis, that might be the only way to measure the stylistic shift in 1942: Lester has transitioned from his alto sound to his tenor sound, the difference made more startling by the change in mouthpiece and the unique circumstances of the July 15th recording date.

Regarding the stylistic shift in 50s Lester, perhaps he would reply, I’ve developed my saxophone to make it sound like a bass!

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As advertised, I have failed to answer the question of why Lester abruptly changed his style. I’m certain it was an artistic choice, not the result of any form of decline, but anything beyond that is guesswork. Having come this far, though, I might as well give it a shot.

It’s worth reiterating that Lester probably changed styles more than once in his early career, before he ever recorded. He already had a reputation for astonishment by the late 1920s, when alto was his main instrument. Descriptions of his style then suggest that it differed greatly from his subsequent tenor style, leaning more toward technical prowess, perhaps due to his Jimmy Dorsey influence. On the other hand, some describe a style characterized by increased use of empty space, also unlike his tenor style-to-be.

On the matter of abruptness, his switch from alto to tenor happened in a single day. Lester convinced a bandleader to buy him a tenor so he could replace the band prima donna, and he was a tenor player from that point onward. So the sudden change he made in 1942 wasn’t out of character.

It could be argued that his 30s style had run its course by then. Airchecks from early 1941, by his Kelly’s Stables band, don’t show a clear musical direction. Lester plays creatively and beautifully, but it’s as if he isn’t sure what he wants to do next. Versions of Tickle Toe and Taxi War Dance sound empty stripped of their big band settings. The band had no pianist, and the guitarist, John Collins, played four-to-the-bar, Freddie Green style, thus the music lacks the virtues a small band setting should have offered.

Tickle Toe February 15th, 1941

Taxi War Dance, February 15th, 1941

In jazz, the term “cool” survives for lack of anything better, but it does sum up 30s Lester in a word. It’s fair to say that Lester’s playing grew increasingly cool during the Basie years. In relative terms, Shoe Shine Boy (November ‘36) isn’t cool at all, compared with Jive At Five (February ‘39).

Jive At Five February 4th, 1939

This quest for maximum cool intensified post-Basie, with Lester continuing to move further back in the beat (the “lag-along style”). As noted, he was even willing to sacrifice rhythmic drive in pursuit of this goal. This approach can’t be called a dead end, since it resulted in beauty of the highest order, but it’s hard to imagine how much further Lester could have gone in this direction. It’s even harder to imagine Lester freezing this style– or any style–in place and using it for the rest of his career.

The December ‘41 aircheck of Benny’s Bugle, from the Club Capris, proves that Lester continued using the maximum cool approach after his arrival in California. But by the time of the Trouville airchecks (May and June ‘42) the change in style is evident.

I can’t help but wonder how Bumps Myers factored into this change. Based on the various airchecks, it’s obvious that the Lee and Lester band drew much of its power from the sound of two tenors in unison. So Lester and Bumps spent untold hours blending their forceful sounds into one, both on the bandstand and during the many rehearsals Lee Young insisted upon.

Comparisons to Herschel cry out. It has never been entirely clear how close Lester and Herschel really were, in part because they were musical rivals, in part because Herschel was belligerent by nature, but mostly because Lester hid his true feelings. After Herschel’s death, though, some say Lester would trade phrases with himself, four bars Lester, four bars Herschel. If so, it would indicate he’d been affected to the core.

We know even less about his relationship with Bumps, which is to say nothing at all, but Bumps was an easygoing bear of a man and there are no reports of personal conflicts. In any case, playing in unison with him for a year and a half surely exerted some influence.

I will now rush in where real jazz writers (Ross Russell not included) fear to tread, by adopting Lester’s point of view.

I can picture him at a tipping point in early ‘42. The transition to his tenor sound has stalled out as he struggles to get the tone he wants out of the Link. The goal of pure, concentrated beauty has been accomplished months before, yet his artistic direction remains uncertain. He has pushed maximum cool as far as it can go and it hasn’t led to greater success. In fact, this unguarded expression of his being has left him more vulnerable than ever, while bringing only rejection in return.

Meanwhile, his association with Bumps is providing unexpected inspiration. It turns out Bumps is a first rate musician who has his own original take on the Hawkins style. It’s becoming clear that he can borrow from Bumps (Herschel?) without compromising his own individuality. Absorbing some of Bumps’ muscular approach will displace some of his cool, but it offers a way out of the prolonged impasse. He still has no interest in sounding like Hawkins, but the time has come to flex his own muscles, to move back toward the center of the beat, to be more direct and less abstract, to tell stories through prose, not poetry. And for that, he’s going to need a new sound.

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How plausible is any of the above? I have no idea. This is where it always gets maddening, because the change of style and the change of sound happen simultaneously. If he’d kept his 30s sound, would the change in style have been less conspicuous? Definitely. The similarities far outweigh the differences.

But sound is everything. Lester’s sound in the 30s was a miracle of nature, as though God had said, “Let There Be Cool,” and Lester sprang into existence. 30s Lester was an introvert who worked through understatement. 40s Lester was–relatively speaking–an extrovert, willing to raise his voice to make a point. Much of what he played, though, was still undeniably cool. Had it been played with his 30s sound, I’m not sure anyone would have noticed the change.

The best I can do is suggest that the new sound is intrinsically less cool. Much of the moonlight is gone, especially in the upper register, which was its natural habitat. With more edge comes more grit, a roughness that highlights the declamatory nature of his new phrasing. It seems to me that 30s Lester made the tone in his upper register a priority over the tone in his lower register, and that the reverse is true of 40s Lester. This clouded over the moon even more.   

Cool, of course, can’t be notated or quantified, but you know it when you hear it, or when you don’t, which is why listeners and critics reacted so strongly to 40s Lester. For many, he had lost his cool, and without that he was a stranger.

30s Lester offered a paradise of exquisite beauty, conjured from his dreams. 40s Lester grappled with reality, where beauty was hard-fought. He could be cool when he wished, especially on ballads, but his stories were about the real world now, and it was certainly no paradise.   

Those who consider his 40s playing inferior have every right to do so. Rather than lamenting it, though, they should marvel instead at how much 40s Lester doesn’t sound like 30’s Lester. Only a true genius could have made such a dramatic shift in style, at will, in such a short period of time.

Lester’s playing did deteriorate in the 50s, in lockstep with his deteriorating health, but he was still forging ahead, in pursuit of new ideas, and there are a great many treasures for the taking. Tragically, alcoholism was the ultimate legacy of his Army experience, and it claimed his life on March 15th, 1959.

As long as Lester had his strength, though, every solo told a new story, fashioned in the moment from the deepest of emotions, and structured by the keenest of intellects.

Perhaps Lester would reply, That’s the way I want things! That’s modern, dig?

John Purcell May 2023

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