Lester Young was the most important jazz soloist between Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. He was a true original that created his own unique sound and style. His sound was in stark contrast to Coleman Hawkins who was the reining tenor saxophone champion when Lester came onto the scene.
Lester had a lite, airy sound and used little or no vibrato. Stylistically he had a different conception than those that had come before him. He had a linear approach with which he created extremely melodic, long flowing lines that generated a floating effect.
Lester was born in Woodville, Mississippi in 1909. His father was a teacher and bandleader who created a family band that traveled throughout the area. Lester learned a variety of instruments and joined the family band when he was 10 years old. He broke with his father’s band in 1927 and joined the territory band of Art Bronson’s Bostonians which was based in Salina Kansas. At that point he settled on the tenor saxophone as his primary instrument.
In 1932 he joined the legendary Oklahoma City Blue Devils. He stayed with the Blue Devils for a few months ending up in Kansas City in 1933. Once there he started participating in the nightly jam sessions and quickly became a force to be reckoned with.
He had only been in town a short time when the infamous jam session took place at the Cherry Blossom club and Lester defeated the great Coleman Hawkins and solidified his reputation. Around that same time Bennie Moten was voted out of his own band and replaced by Count Basie who brought in several ex-Blue Devils including Lester.
After Basie and Moten reconciled Lester left town and replaced Coleman Hawkins in Fletcher Henderson’s band which turned out to be a disaster. Everyone wanted Lester to sound like Hawkins and he wanted no part of it. He left Henderson after a short time, joined Andy Kirk for a while then settled in Minneapolis where his family had relocated.
In 1936 he heard the Basie band broadcasting from the Reno Club and contacted Basie about joining the new band.
Once Lester returned to Kansas City everything fell into place with the Reno Club band. Later in the month John Hammond heard one of the late night broadcasts and was blown away by what he heard. He was especially impressed with Lester and quickly put things in motion to introduce the band on a national level.
Once the Basie band hit the big time, Hammond suggested the addition of another of his discoveries, Billie Holiday. Billie and Lester developed a very close but platonic relationship and truly cared for each other deeply. He nicknamed her "Lady" and she nicknamed him "Prez," short for President of the tenor saxophone.