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Lester Young: Centennial

The annual WKCR Lester Young & Charlie Parker Birthday Broadcast starts today. Three days of nonstop Bird and Prez, based on the cosmic conjunction of their birthdays: August 27 and 29. Check it out in New York at 89.9 FM or online:

This year, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Lester Young, it takes on a special significance.


Though Lester Young was revered in his time as an artist of the highest rank, the 100th anniversary of his birth has not sparked much in the way of commemoration. No postage stamp; no parade in Woodville, Mississippi, where he was born on August 27, 1909; no statues in New Orleans, Kansas City or New York City —all places with a claim on the spellbinding Swing Era saxophonist known as Prez.

A shining exception is Columbia University’s WKCR radio, where, for the past 40 years, jazz historian Phil Schaap has led marathon birthday tributes to Young, revisiting his landmark recordings from the 1930s and ’40s with Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman and other leading lights, as well as Young’s in-and-out performances in the troubled years before his death in 1959. Like Louis Armstrong before him, Prez was a pivotal figure; his lyrical, flowing style changed the terms of jazz improvisation and deeply influenced such musicians as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Frank Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim.


The cool aesthetic that Young defined in the 1930s and 1940s was much more than a jazz movement... it eventually came to permeate the broader contemporary culture. In time, the cool worldview shaped how average Americans dressed and acted and spoke — often borrowing hipster phrases originated by Young himself. In fact, we have good reason to believe the very meaning of the word “cool”—in its modern signification of a fashionable hipness—originated with this unconventional saxophonist.

Lifestyle choices and behavior patterns that started with Young and a small number of jazz cats, became the de facto way of life for the 1960s generation. This strange process... is all the more surprising when one considers how unusual Young was in the context of his own generation. During his military service, Young was diagnosed as “a constitutional psychopath" and branded as a misfit due to his “drug addiction (marijuana, barbiturates), alcoholism and nomadism.” Because of his effeminate ways, Young was sometimes thought to be a homosexual — today he would be typecast as a “metrosexual” and it would probably enhance his music career, but in the context of the 1930s jazz world, Young was an outlier . . . both in this regard and on any other bell curve you might care to chart.

Oddly enough, almost all of his eccentricities — linguistic, behavioral, psychological — became part of the American way of life in the years following his death. This is the secret history of “the cool”: it was the process by which people in Middle America started acting like jazz musicians. And no musician of his generation set the tone for this future development more completely than Lester Willis Young.

In other words, Lester Young was a sociological force as well as a musical one.


"In this modern jazz, they heard something rebel and nameless that spoke for them, and their lives knew a gospel for the first time. It was more than a music; it became an attitude toward life, a way of walking, a language and a costume; and these introverted kids... now felt somewhere at last." -John Clellon Holmes

"Prez invented cool. Rather than state a melody, he suggested it. He barely breathed into his horn, creating an intimacy that gave me chills." -B.B. King

When Lester plays, he almost seems to be singing; one can almost hear the words. -Billie Holiday