Writings about Music

Returning To Lester Young

Lester Young

Reconsidering the aesthetic delights of Lester Young's tenor saxophone timbres and overall revolutionary style, I discerned elements related to clarinet, trombone and alto flute, in addition to C-melody saxophone.

My first formal introduction to jazz arrived upon taking piano lessons from Barney Bragin beginning at the age of 13 as documented in my previous essay. Barney had me listening to Jazz Impressions From Eurasia by the Dave Brubeck Quartet together with playing from the notated score, and I was especially taken by the alto saxophone of Paul Desmond and the drumming of Joe Morello, joined by equally fine contributions from pianist Brubeck and bassist Joe Benjamin.

Dovetailing most beautifully and momentously, it was high school band director, Rollan Masciarelli, who then had me learning to sing along with tenor saxophone solos by Lester Young, explaining how this was the perfect preparation for alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, something that proved entirely correct.

Mr. Masciarelli was taken by how I could sing along with Young's "Jumpin' At the Woodside" solo with Count Basie, including capturing all the rhythmic and melodic subtleties.

The mentioned Lester Young solo begins at 1:40

Over the past few days, I've been revisiting the music of Lester Young, and found the time away from him allowed for fresh insights provided by the superb "The Lester Young Story" box set from Proper Records.

The influence of Frankie Trumbauer on the uniquely innovative tenor saxophone sound and improvisational architecture of Lester Young is well known, but it appears something else equally crucial has been mostly overlooked, namely clarinetist Benny Goodman, who Young actually mentioned as a key progenitor of his style together with Trumbauer and alto saxophonist Jimmy Dorsey.

If one listens closely to the timbres of Young, there is a definite example of how modeling one instrument while playing another occurred. Trumbauer played the C-melody saxophone, so the phenomenon described exists here as well, together with the darker, more focused tonal characteristics of Benny Goodman's clarinet playing that were assimilated, transformed, and projected through the prism of Lester Young's personal body, emotional, and spiritual inclinations within the generally lower pitch register of the tenor saxophone, a relatively new instrument characterized by the magical joining of brass and woodwind essences invented by Adolfe Sax, and fully realized by innovative American jazz artists.

With Lester Young, the effect pertaining to the Benny Goodman influence is as if he were playing a considerably larger, expanded dimensionality clarinet with a different pitch range, one that allows going up to a tritone lower. Not a bass clarinet, of course, but rather a tenor saxophone tempered with breath control, embouchure, and other physical factors for actualizing Young's timbral preferences towards the optimum sound required to transmit musical invention and moods.

Frankie Trumbauer's C-melody saxophone influence synergizes with that of Benny Goodman's clarinet given how that now almost completely vanished member of the saxophone family has a sounding range in-between the tenor saxophone and the higher pitched alto saxophone.

Actually, Paul Desmond did something similar, the clarinet being the primary influence on his alto saxophone playing as documented in an earlier essay.

More so, it is evident how the actual music style of Goodman has influenced Young in terms of fluid invention articulated with a technique mindful of European classical playing, expanded upon with the revolutionary innovations of melody, rhythm, timbre, and expression Lester Young gifted the art of jazz beyond what anyone had played before.

Adding to the enticingly speculative question of Young's innovative tenor saxophone sound, there are definite elements of trombone in his timbre, together with alto flute. One presumes Young was familiar with Tommy Dorsey's super-legato trombone style, while never hearing or reading of Lester ever playing the flute even though he often held the tenor saxophone in a flute-like manner. While the flute is a woodwind instrument, it is made of metal like the saxophone, and we must remember that the saxophone was still in its infancy as a jazz instrument when Lester "leaped in," and thus especially open to new pathways. I would go so far to venture that Young actually did have experience playing the flute, and this experience has been hidden from history for whatever reason. Lastly, given how Young was an excellent clarinetist himself, one imagines he was also deeply taken by the playing of Artie Shaw, known for his subtle vibrato and classical technique.

Adding to the musical perceptions, I was surprised and charmed to learn for the first time how like myself, Lester Young had reddish hair, green eyes, and was six foot tall, the reason being I've never seen a color photograph of Lester revealing these traits, and don't even know if any exist. It is believed Young's hair and eye colorations were inherited from his Creole mother, while my ancestry is Russian, Hungarian and Polish.

How thrilling it is to have these new insights into the music of Lester Young, and, this time, to marvel more at his actual sound together with the musical invention, being that when I first encountered Young's playing in tenth grade, I was paying much more attention to the luminous musical constructions as opposed to the stunningly original, elegant, subtle, powerful and majestic properties and uncanny range of his timbres.

It is so amazing how no one was able to truly replicate the unique rainbow of tenor saxophone timbres invented by Lester Young, and the same goes for his musical style. Part of his sound evidently had to do with the Conn tenor saxophone he initially played, that experience and influence remaining even after he switched to the brassier sound of the Selmer tenor saxophone.

Something else I share with Lester Young is a deep love for the singing of Frank Sinatra, who provides priceless insights into how to interpret standards and, in general, how to be profoundly musical. 

Lester Young photo in the Manhattan apartment hallway of Lee Konitz

(photo by Michael Robinson)

My teacher, who later became a close friend, Lee Konitz, viewed Lester Young and Frank Sinatra as his absolute musical heroes and models together with Lennie Tristano. I was deeply moved walking past a photograph of Young prominently displayed in the hallway of Lee's Manhattan pad together with finding a giant photo of Sinatra in Lee's kitchen.

Lee served me some vegetables and rice he prepared there on one occasion, and while not at the level of his jazz improvisations due to lack of practice, I was touched by the effort. Frank was known for enjoying cooking his favorite Italian dishes, but I lack knowledge about Lester's culinary skills.

Frank Sinatra image in the Manhattan apartment kitchen of Lee Konitz

(photo by Michael Robinson)

It was very cool to find quotes from Sinatra and Young pertaining to each other as follows.

"I knew Lester well, we were close friends and we had a mutual-admiration-society. I took from what he did and he took from what I did." (Frank Sinatra told to Arlene Francis)

Sinatra also admired Young for "knowing the lyrics" to the songs he played, and "knowing what the song is about has to come from the lyric, not merely notes on a piece of paper." (Frank Sinatra told to Arlene Francis)

“If I could put together exactly the kind of band I wanted, Frank Sinatra would be the singer. Really, my main man is Frank Sinatra.” (Lester Young told to Nat Hentoff)

I've written about the importance of lyrics for instrumentalists on a number of occasions, beginning here.

- Michael Robinson, January 2022, Los Angeles


© 2022 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer, programmer, jazz pianist and musicologist. His 190 albums include 151 albums for meruvina and 39 albums of piano improvisations. Robinson has been a lecturer at UCLA, Bard College and California State University Long Beach and Dominguez Hills.