February 17, 2020- Today's BHM topic is: Lee and Lester Young
Our President’s Day Black History spotlight is on Lee and Lester Young. Towards the end of 1940 Lester Young left the Count Basie Orchestra to go out on his own.
The story that was printed in the press at the time said that Basie had a recording session on Friday the 13th and that Lester refused to participate. Lester supposedly said that Friday the 13th was no day to play music. While It’s doubtful that event ever took place it has been part of Lester Young folklore since the 1930s.
In reality Lester was ready to go out on his own. He played several dates around New York in early 1941 before deciding to join his younger brother, Lee, on the west coast.
Lee was an outstanding drummer who had established himself on the Los Angeles scene in the late 30s working with Nat King Cole and Lionel Hampton among others.
Lee was forming a band to play Billy Berg’s Club Capri and Lester came west to join him.
For the first six months of the engagement, Lester was forced to appear as an act due to union rules. In November his transfer was approved and the group became known as Lee and Lester Young’s Orchestra. No commercial recordings were made but a handful of the original radio broadcasts have turned up which give us an idea of what the band
sounded like. In addition to Lester Young on tenor the group included Bumps Meyers also on tenor, Paul Campbell or Red Mack Morris on trumpet, pianist Jimmy Rowles, Red Callendar on bass and Lee Young on drums.
The Club Capri was the first of five Los Angeles clubs owned by Billy Berg. In 1942 he opened a new club in the Beverly Fairfax district called the Trouville. Berg moved the Lee and Lester Young band to the Trouville where they played six nights a week. At the Trouville the band accompanied Billie Holiday for a lengthy engagement and broadcast over station KHJ.
It was during this engagement that a young jazz fan named Norman Granz approached Berg with the idea of opening the club on Sundays for an organized jam session. Granz stipulation was that the club and the bandstand had to be racially integrated during the Sunday sessions. Berg agreed and the first session took place in June of 1942 with Lester
Those sessions were the beginnings of what would grow into Jazz at the Philharmonic. Granz also produced a memorable recording session featuring Lester and
Nat King Cole during the summer of 1942.
Los Angeles was Lester’s home base for a couple of years until he eventually re-joined the Basie band. By 1944 he was back in Los Angeles continuing his association with
Norman Granz. Granz produced, what is considered the greatest jazz film of all time, “Jammin the Blues” with Lester as the featured star. Lee Young lived in Los Angeles the rest of his life and was one of the busiest drummers in town for many years. He appears on many motion picture soundtracks and was the first African American musician to work
for a major Hollywood Studio.