Last Thursday was Lester Young's centennial. It's hard to believe but Prez (short for President, Young's nickname) never made a bad record. From his earliest session with Basie in November 1936 to his final recordings just days before his death in March 1959, Young's tenor saxophone always had a silky, pleading sound that surfaced as a blues and swing swirl. His improvisational ideas were so consistently relaxed and soulful that an entire generation of reed players unashamedly tried to sound like him—until, that is, Sonny Rollins broke the mold in the early 1950s.
"Maybe some in America have forgotten Lester Young, but people all over the world are still moved every time they hear the classic recordings of this giant. Prez was someone who helped change the face of jazz, and people still cherish the moments in their lives when they heard him. In spite of all the setbacks in his own life, everything Prez did celebrated beauty and lyricism.
"Last week, on Prez's 100th birthday, I was invited to a filming at the corner of 52nd St. and Sixth Avenue in New York. There used to be a plaque on the sidewalk there honoring Prez, Billie Holiday and all the other great musicians who graced us with their presence during the street's heyday. But the plaque has inexplicably been removed and was nowhere to be seen.
"Nevertheless, the memories are still there. As I drove into the city from our little farm in upstate New York, I flashed back to being a teenager and driving seven hours in my 1932 Plymouth from Washington, D.C. to New York to hear all the thrilling new music being created every night on 52nd Street. Now all the clubs are gone, and only old photos, a few films and many great recordings remain.
"But I was there to celebrate Prez and his 100th birthday, and I imagined that maybe he would show up in that great pork pie hat and tell us some of his endless stories of his latest adventures on that never-ending road he was on most of his life.
"I walked with all my instruments over to the fountain on the northwest corner of 52nd and Sixth Avenue where Henry Ferrini had asked me to meet him. Henry is making a documentary film about Lester. As I unpacked my instruments on the sidewalk, I was eyed by people who saw I was going to be filmed.
"When I told them why I was there, many told me they had never heard of Lester Young. 'Go home and check him out on the Internet,' I said. 'You'll be happy if you do. And if you get any of his recordings, you'll be surprised how often you listen to them.'
"A day earlier, Henry [pictured] asked if I could come into the city and relate any stories about this most beloved and influential musical pioneer. I told Henry during our phone conversation about Lester's wish in his last days to have a string quartet piece composed for him—with optional French horn and rhythm section.
"I told Henry I was to compose the piece for Lester and join him in the recording. Drummer Willie Jones had suggested to Prez that I write the music. I had played with Jones in 1955 when I first came to New York and we had worked together with Charles Mingus at the Bohemia. Jones was also a friend of Lester's and told Lester that I could write a string piece for him that would let him play freely. Lester knew I was a jazz French hornist who had played and recorded with Mingus, Oscar Pettiford and others. So Lester suggested to Willie that I add a French horn to the strings and play the instrument myself.
"When I told Henry about Lester's interest in doing this, he told me he already knew about it. 'How could you possibly know that?' I asked him.
" 'Because I have a copy of the tape where Lester mentions it during an interview he gave in Paris in February 1959,' Henry said on the phone. 'In the interview with French reporter Francois Postif, Lester said that he had a man to write for strings, and a French horn and rhythm.' Henry said he knew that if the person writing a string quartet was also was adding a French horn, it must be me. [Pictured: David, left, with Leonard Bernstein]
"It blew my mind to find out that this had been documented 50 years ago in one of Lester's last interviews. I didn't realize that anyone else knew about it, since only five weeks later, on March 15, 1959, Prez passed away.
"Henry told me that he also had a printed copy of the same interview, which appeared in Lewis Porter's bio of Lester Young, and that when I came to the city to be filmed he would show it to me. Henry also told me that the actual interview could be heard on YouTube, in Prez's own voice.
"As I stood on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 52nd Street, Henry took out a copy of Lewis Porter's excellent bio and showed me the printed words of Lester talking about this collaboration, which unfortunately never happened because he left us too soon.
"As I read the passage, I could hear Lester's unmistakable soft voice and realized I was standing not far from where many of us stood during a long-gone time, hearing Prez play during the glory days of 52nd street over 60 years ago!
"Now it was time to play something for Lester in the same place where all the jazz clubs had once stood side by side, creating a little village of musical delights like Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Back then on 52nd Street, you could walk and listen outside each club if you were too young to get in. Standing there on the sidewalk, you could hear all the groups and even meet the musicians and hang out with them when they took their breaks and went out on the same sidewalk I was standing on now, as they relaxed after playing their set, to get some air, have a smoke and rap with passersby and other musicians.
"I closed my eyes and played Happy Birthday, Amazing Grace, and some blues for Prez—as a thank you to honor this amazing musician.
"Through the surrounding din of the trucks grinding their gears, car horns honking, subways rumbling and people rapping as they walked by—all of which served as a New York rush hour rhythm section and back-up band—I had a moment where I felt something of Lester's presence out there in that spirit world. Just like you sometimes feel Mozart looking over your shoulder on the rare occasions that you are doing his music justice. [Photo by Herman Leonard, (c)Herman Leonard Photography LLC]
"I told Henry that the next 100 years would be even better for Prez—and for all of us. Now a whole new younger generation can bypass decades of bad taste and neglect by a music industry that is being replaced by access to the Internet. Online, you can see and hear masters of all the sincere forms of music built to last, and relate the musical masters from Lester's place of birth in Mississippi and study how he incorporated all this into his life's journey in the work he created. And that discovering Lester was a gateway to seeing and hearing all the other artists he influenced and continues to influence.
"It is really important that this film is being made. Henry is a unique filmmaker. He spent years creating the documentary Lowell Blues, the best film ever made about writer Jack Kerouac, and one of my favorite films of all time, with a great score by Lee Konitz.
"Henry Ferrini also plays the sax, and he made a beautiful documentary film about poet Charles Olson, which also is a gem. I am honored to be in the Lester Young tribute film. And I know it will be memorable, no matter how long it takes Henry to finish the project and get it released.
"I think as I approach the big eight-oh [on November 17, 2010] that part of my gig in life is to honor all those who I was lucky enough to know but no longer are here. There are so many wonderful people who have been dismissed or forgotten by our culture.
"Henry's film will help to remind people how proud we should all be to have had someone like Prez to enrich our lives."
JazzWax clip: Here's the February 1959 clip of Lester Young being interviewed in Paris, in which he refers to David's pending string and French horn composition...