Lester Young and All That Jazz
iography writing is a bitch. You spend years of your life immersed in someone else’s life, a person’s life who will remembered more than yours (unless you are Boswell). After you have read everything possible and spoken to everyone, you then have to take what everyone knows about your topic and make it fresh. You do all of this to the best of your ability, publish your book, and then prissy, small minded, critics with an agenda carp on your years of work, complaining about a misinterpretation here or accusing you of not writing a book worthy of the subject. And may the good Lord help you, if you write about a person who has earned mythic status. Hopefully a deity thinks kindly of Douglas Henry Daniels.
Daniels, a professor of history and Black Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara has decided to enter the sectarian world of jazz and write a biography on the tenor saxophone player Lester Young. If you call yourself a jazz fan and do not know Young, please deposit all of your jazz albums at the nearest used record store and restock with Kenny G eight-tracks. Young is the bridge between the lodestars Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane. He was bop before bop was hip and could swing with the best of them. He wasn’t going to blow you away with a big tone like Coleman Hawkins (the tenor player Young was always unfairly compared to), but he would very gently lull you to dreams with wisps of beauty. His stature was such that according to legend, the great Billie Holiday named him “Pres”, short for President, and he was so faithful to his musical vision that he refused to change even when his style was misunderstood. Like a true rebel, Young stuck to his guns and played the notes in his heart even when it took some years for the rest of us catch up to his genius.
This is the man Daniels spends 387 pages on (excluding footnotes). All the research is there, and he even takes on the conventional wisdom of Young’s late career; however, there is something out of tune with this biography. Lester Leaps In is a boring read, a hard feat considering that Young was known to add his own touches to language and was known for both his wit and open heart. Daniels has the facts down and everything is in context, but there is something missing. Young played softly, with an eye for beauty. Yet there is no beauty in this book. The butterfly has been stuck to the page.
Lester Leaps In reads like a paper that is delivered at a conference for academics. There is the constant use of the universal “we.” Points are made over and over again (Daniels tells the reader constantly what an impressive man Young’s father was) and there are lines that only work if you are looking for an artificial big moment. At one point, Daniels is describing the effect jazz bands, had on their fans. While the sentence maybe true it seems to be put in for the big “moment”: “That legacy nurtured people’s spirits, enriched urbanites’ lives, provided musicians with incomes, and served as an antidote to the pernicious effects of materialism, commercial music, and racism.”
What is also troublesome about Daniels work is there is not one transcription of a Young solo. In fact, there is no coherent development of why Young was so revolutionary. After reading Lester Leaps In, I knew more facts about Young, but I was not compelled to rush out and buy a c.d. Nor did it make me reinterpret any of Young’s solos that I have heard before. There are lots of man, but very little music.
But no more of the carping critic, taking Daniels’ work and bleeding it dry. Lester Leaps In is at its best when Daniels debunks some of the accepted myths of Young’s development. While there is no denying the fame Young earned when he joined Count Basie’s band, Daniels, with interviews from other musicians, makes a persuasive case that Young’s work before Basie, with the Blue Devils band, was a time when Young was able to fine-tune his sound. In taking down the “Basie theory”, Daniels also takes away the idea that Young was a Kansas City musician. According to Daniels, Young’s formative years were spent working in Minneapolis and the southwest, and that time is more critical to Young’s development than his work in Kansas City. There is also appropriate weight to Young’s musical training from his father (a man who earned the title of professor” because of his musical acumen), and Daniels stays away from the “great man” theory of jazz. Clearly there are great men, and women, who are part of the music’s development, but Daniels reminds that when the music was in its infancy, it was the small bands and minor players who kept the music alive and spread it to cities and hamlets across the country.
Lester Leaps In might not musically trace the development of Young, but it does an excellent job of showing how Young was an original who was cursed and blessed with a musical vision. He could have easily stopped playing the way he did and turned into another Coleman Hawkins, something that many people wanted him to do, but Young understood the idea of searching for a distinctive sound. Young was the epitome of an American rebel and Daniels’ work hopefully will be one of many biographies that put Young in his proper place in American musical history.
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