Lester Young (also known as “Pres”) was born on August 27, 1909 into a musical family. The oldest of three children, he grew up in the New Orleans area and was taught by his father to play violin, trumpet, drums, and saxophone.
By the age of 13, Young was living in the Minneapolis area and performing with their family band. It was at this point that he decided on the saxophone as his instrument of choice.
At the end of 1927, Young decided to leave the family band, and he spent the next several years performing and touring with several small bands. However, it wasn’t until 1934, when Young joined Count Basie, that he really began to gain popularity. In 1940, he left Basie’s group to create his own band and also to do solo performances, but in 1944, Young ended up rejoining Count Basie in 1944.
In September 1944, Young was drafted to the army. Having lived a musician’s life, he was not well-suited to military life, and the stress of being away from his music took its toll on him. Young was discovered using drugs and ended up spending several months in military detention. After his release from the army in 1945, Young went back to his musical life. While some of his greatest work was produced in this time period, Young’s drinking began to increase, making his performance ability inconsistent. The constant drinking also led to the deterioration of Young’s health and, eventually, to his premature death on March 15, 1959.
Pres was a very unique man. He was known for holding his saxophone out to the side and for playing in a totally different style than was popular at the time. Young stood out as an original musician who was not swayed by the thoughts and opinions of others. In Young’s earlier years, one of the most popular tenor saxophone players was Coleman Hawkins, who was known to play aggressively and to produce a huge sound. Young, on the other hand, played with a relaxed style and a softer, lighter sound. He was also known to be a great improviser.
After the war, the Lester Young who returned to the music scene was different than the Lester Young that people were familiar with. While he continued to be a successful performer, his music began to have a darker sound to it. Some people think that the quality of Young’s work declined at this time and that it lacked conviction; however, there are others who believe that this was when his best work was produced. No matter how much debate there is over this, there is no doubt that “Pres” was an important figure in the musical experience of his time.