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On this date in 1909, Black jazz saxophonist Lester Young was born.
His name at birth was Willis Lester Young, and he was from a musical family in Woodville, Mississippi. He spent his childhood with his mother, sister, and brother in Algiers, Louisiana, a suburb of New Orleans, where he was introduced to jazz. At age 10, Young and his family traveled throughout the South with a carnival minstrel band. Before choosing the tenor, he started on drums and played C-melody and alto saxophone. The family band settled in Minneapolis in 1926 but traveled throughout the northern plain states, playing primarily for dances.
After the group moved to Los Angeles in the late 1920s, Young joined the original Blue Devils (based in Oklahoma City) in 1932. He also played with King Oliver and Count Basie before gaining national attention as Coleman Hawkins' replacement for Fletcher Henderson in 1934. Many of his best-known recordings were made at this time, including "Oh Lady Be Good," "Jive at Five," "Lester Leaps In," "Shoe Shine Boy," and others. Young also recorded many sessions with small groups under the leadership of Teddy Wilson and Billie Holiday (who allegedly gave him his nickname “Pres” or “Prez”).
He played with the Basie band several times and, in between, led his group in Louisiana and New York City. He did have a life-turning pause from playing when he was inducted into the U.S. Army in the fall of 1944. His military service led to a court-martial and a year of detention for drug use. This enhanced his alcohol dependence, which plagued him for the rest of his life. In 1946, he joined Norman Granz’s touring concert series, and in the 1950s, he developed a new, darker, less buoyant style in tone.
Lester Young’s playing remained at an extraordinarily high level until he died in New York a day after returning from Paris on March 15, 1959.