Lester Young-The President Of The Saxophone

Lester Young-The President Of The Saxophone

Lester Young was an incredibly influential saxophonist and musician. Known for his signature Pork Pie Hat and work with vocalist Billie Holliday,

“The President,” or “Prez” as he was known, combined a unique linear saxophone style with a airy, light sound.

His early work in the mid 30’s with Count Basie and the Basie Band is legendary; his rhythmic drive or “swing” became a model for many future generations of saxophonists, including Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz. There was something truly special in the saxophone work of Lester Young, a timeless beauty that will certainly survive forever.  A more thorough investigation of Lester Young can be found here at Wikipedia…..https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lester_Young

Lester Young did manage to record on clarinet at times, and his work on clarinet is really worth investigating.  Notice the metal clarinet on the bed in this photo…..

Although he played a metal clarinet, what comes through in his recorded clarinet work is that same sense of humor, fascinating note choice and the inimitable rhythmic placement of his phrases.  While these clarinet solos tend to be short and fairly simple, they are ideal for clarinet students to begin to grab ahold of the “Lesterian” concept.  I play several of them almost daily as they make great warm up exercises.  Here are some of the clarinet transcriptions that I have done, they are nothing fancy but you can get the idea of how simple and engaging these solos are.  Again the idea is to learn these solos off the recordings by ear……These recordings are pretty readily avaible and there is a disc I found recently on Amazon called Lester Young The Complete Clarinet Works 1938-1958, CABU Records #548, that has pretty much all the Lester clarinet recorded material neatly packaged onto two discs.

Countless Blues #1
Pagin' The Devil #1
Pagin' The Devil #2 copy
I Ain't Got Nobody:LY-Clar


I make it a point to introduce the solos of Lester Young to tenor saxophone students at an early stage of their improvising development.  Ad Lib Blues, Blue Lester and Poundcake can be taught very quickly phrase by phrase to students with some reasonable technical background, and once you have them playing the line, I have them play along with the recording in headphones by ear.  The idea is to as deeply as possible absorb the feeling and nuances, as well as the notes, of the soloist.  I’ve seen this study completely transform many young musicians playing and musicianship.  Blue Lester and Poundcake were the first two Lester Young solos that Warne Marsh suggested I learn, and I did play both of them for him.  Not well, mind you, but I did get through them, and his critique has lasted a lifetime.

Blue Lester has to be among the greatest saxophone pieces ever recorded.  Its lyrical quality and heartbreaking saxophone tone and vibrato are incredibly evocative.  It’s as if you are in a jazz club listening to Lester pour out his heart, and he packs such beautiful and specific harmonic choices into this minor chord progression.  I now understand why Warne wanted young saxophonists to absorb this solo, it is an incredible statement of warmth, harmony and tone, and it is certain to grab a student and influence his conception. 

LY:Ad Lib Blues
Blue Lester:Bb
LY:Pouncake Solo


Poundcake is two choruses of G concert blues.  I consider this solo to be a cousin of the more elaborate Lady Be Good solo that made Lester famous initially.  Both are in the same key, and you can hear some similar feeling and style in Poundcake and Lady Be Good.  Both solos lie very comfortably on the tenor saxophone, and contain classic Lester Young solo statements.  Lady Be Good, with Count Basie on piano, is a perfect daily warm up once you have learned it.  Warne Marsh used to tell his students to warm up with any Lester solo in any key, at any tempo.  In fact Warne was such a Lester fan that he recorded a version of Lady Be Good with Red Mitchell on bass where he quotes the Lester solo note for note before launching into his own solo.  I do plan to feature that transcription in an upcoming post on Warne Marsh, so please stay tuned for that!!

Lady Be Good Solo:LY


I am including here some additional transcriptions I have done of Lester Young. 

All Of Me:LY


This solo on All Of Me is a classic and was a signature tune of Lester’s.  He recorded it a few times, notably with Billie Holliday singing it, but this version stands out to me as truly definitive Lester Young.

This next transcription of Tickle Toe is another definitive and influential solo, Lee Konitz recorded a version with Richie Kamuca where they play the solo note for note, and there is fabulous version of Tickle Toe on the Art Pepper Meets Warne Marsh recording.  It is clear that Lester was a huge influence on both Warne and Lee, which came from their studies with Lennie Tristano.

Tickle Toe:Tenor Complete


I don’t think you can learn too many solos or transcribe too much as a young improviser.  Personally I like to learn the solo first by ear, phrase by phrase, maybe slowing it down with Transcribe or some other variable tempo software, and once I’ve learned it I literally play it over and over again for weeks until I fully absorb it.  Only after that do I then go to the music notation software to write it out, but again that’s only after thoroughly absorbing it by ear.  Often the written representation reveals some interesting details that I may not have fully understood, which I believe makes this step necessary and rewarding in itself.  Lastly I often pull nice phrases out of the solo and transpose them to different starting positions, not as an exercise in all twelve keys, but just to see how they fit on the horn and how they sound in different registers, and to see if they fit my ear so to speak from these different starting points. 

Aspiring improvisers on any instrument should learn as many Lester Young solos as they possibly can.  His influence will get you going in the exact right direction from note one.  By learning to hear and feel Lester’s playing, in particular tenor players will then have a great foundation to proceed onto say Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon.  Learning jazz solos by ear is a large and valuable study, get into doing it and you will transform your playing in ways you’ve never imagined…..






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