With his half-mast eyes, porkpie hat, and languid, legato tenor saxophone style, Lester Young remains one of the great jazz icons — the first paragon of cool, and an inspiration for countless musicians, from Charlie Parker to Stan Getz. A nonpareil improviser, Young is still renowned for the airy lyricism of his solos on recordings like Count Basie’s ”Jumpin’ at the Woodside” (1938) and Billie Holiday’s ”All of Me” (1941). If you’ve seen the movie Round Midnight, based in part on Young’s life, you also know another aspect of his legend: The involuted, spacey, and bittersweet alcoholic died of drink in 1959 at the age of 49. Since he almost never talked to journalists, Young’s life has long presented a number of puzzles. Danish jazz fan Frank Buchmann-Moller has done much to resolve this in his low-key but authoritative new biography.
A storied eccentric, Young was a ”beat” before the word was invented. Born in Mississippi in 1909, he led a rootless youth traveling with his father’s vaudeville band, playing at circuses and carnivals, developing his own unusual vibratoless approach to the saxophone. By the time he settled in Kansas City in 1933, he spoke in a coded language uniquely his own: ”I feel a draft” meant that he detected bigotry. When he was upset, he took a small whisk broom out of his pocket and brushed his shoulder.
Lester Young made no secret of his addiction to booze and pot when his draft board examined him in 1944. Still,the Army took him — a mistake that ended, after several months of confinement in detention barracks, with a dishonorable discharge in 1945. The episode left its mark on Young’s music — never again would he play with the effervescent abandon of his Kansas City days.
Effervescent abandon, alas, is also in short supply in the pages of this all-too-typical piece of jazz scholarship. Buchmann-Moller’s prose is everything Young’s life and music were not: tepid, inert, faceless. Still, he gets the facts straight, in some cases for the rst time; and he has the good sense to quote extensively from the musicians Young worked with. For all its flaws, his book leaves you primed to hear the poetry of Lester Leaps In, Young’s 1939 masterpiece, with fresh ears and new respect — and that is no mean feat. B