In a series of recordings with Count Basie’s big band and smaller groups, and in a legendary partnership with the singer Billie Holiday, Lester Young showed the way towards a cooler, less in-your-face manner of playing jazz. And the duets with Holiday were so sympathetic that they almost sounded like the same person. Here they are together in
Mean to Me.
Lester Young was also a significant influence on the underground hipster and beatnik culture of the 1940s and 50s, since he had an entire, colourfully eccentric vocabulary all of his own in conversation, which only those in the know could follow.
Young’s sax phrasing and melodic ideas inspired many of the younger bebop players - most notably Charlie Parker, who idolised him - though Young didn’t warm to bebop himself, and in general did not participate in it.
But Lester Young’s career stalled in 1944 when he was drafted into the US Army. As a gentle introvert in a tough organisation, Young sought escapes. He was caught in possession of drugs, and spent months in a military prison.
After that period, Young’s sound became harder, more bluesy. But though his last years have often been described as sad or depressed, he could still play immensely moving and beautiful music, even if the mood was now more sombre. Here he is in a live show in Europe in late 1956.