This biographical article is part of JAZZ.FM91’s supplementary research component to expand on The Journey to Jazz and Human Rights documentary podcast series. Click here to find out more.
Lester “Prez” Willis Young was born on Aug. 27, 1909, in Woodville, Miss. While growing up in New Orleans, he worked from the age of five to make money for his family by selling newspapers, and shining shoes. While life was challenging living in poverty, his family was very musical. His father was a teacher and band leader, and many of Young’s relatives were professional musicians. By the 1920s, Young and his family relocated to Minneapolis. Here, Young began to study the drums, violin, and trumpet, and turned to the alto-saxophone at age thirteen.
In 1927, Young left home and began touring with Art Bronson’s Bostonians, during which he switched to tenor. In 1929, he rejoined his family band, and then freelanced for a few years, playing with Walter Page’s Blue Devils in 1930, Eddie Barefield in 1931, and Bennie Moten and King Oliver in 1933. In 1934, he was Count Basie for the first time, but left to replace Coleman Hawkins with Fletcher Henderson. After a tour with Andy Kirk and a few brief jobs, Lester Young was back with Basie in 1936, just in time to star with the band as they headed East. During his years with Basie, Young made history, not only participating on Count’s record dates, but also starring with Billie Holiday and Teddy Wilson on a series of classic small-group sessions.
After separating from Count in 1940, Young’s career became aimless, not capitalizing on his fame in the jazz world. He co-led a low-profile band with his brother, drummer Lee Young, in Los Angeles, until re-joining Basie in December, 1943. For nine months, Young was happily reunited with his band, and recorded a memorable quartet session with bassist Slam Stewart, and starred in the short film Jammin’ the Blues before he was drafted. Unfortunately, Young’s experiences dealing with racism in the military were horrifying, affecting his mental state of mind for the remainder of his life.