Add Webster Young to your list of little-known but consequential trumpeters. Born in South Carolina in 1932, Young met Louis Armstrong early on and asked for some pointers. He soon shifted to Dizzy Gillespie's style after hearing the bop trumpeter play. Eventually, Young landed on Miles Davis' patient, breathy sound, grasping the trumpeter's phrasing and economy perhaps better than any other horn player. [Photo of Webster Young by Michael Gillispie]
Webster Young recorded on only 10 albums, with much of his studio work occurring in 1957. His finest recording and most mature work was his only leadership date entitled For Lady, a Billie Holiday tribute album for Prestige in June 1957.
What's particularly interesting about this album is you get to hear what Miles Davis and Lester Young would have sounded like had they recorded together in the studio in the '50s. Webster Young's blowing here is often with a mute, and his pacing is distinctly in the manner of Davis. Joining him on tenor sax was Paul Quinichette, whose playing was a traced sketch of Lester Young's laid back and languid blues-saturated style. The rest of the group on the date is equally remarkable: Mal Waldron (p) Joe Puma (g) Earl May (b) and Ed Thigpen (d).
There's a sleepy sadness to this album. Holiday was still alive at the time of its recording, yet the recording seems cognizant that she wasn't in great shape and might not be around for much longer. In fact, she would die two years later. Mind you, For Lady isn't a downer but there's an undertow of woe, much like King Pleasure's vocal on Parker's Mood, recorded while Charlie Parker was still alive.
Young's approach to the trumpet was relaxed and steady on this album, bucking the trend toward the poker-hot heat beginning to be exhibited by Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard. Lines are drawn out and stretched, and Young leaves lots of space. What's more, his ideas are never cliche or fumbling. In Young's favor was Quinichette's droopy sound, adding to the swinging-hammock nature of the album's material.
Quinichette, of course, was no Lester Young in the ideas department, but he certainly could do a spitting-image impersonation when it came to the velvety sound.
The track choices also are interesting. If standard Holiday fare had been chosen, the material would have rendered this album somewhat cliche. Instead, we have a superb original by Young called Lady. The rest are Holiday songs but not what you'd expect: God Bless the Child, Moanin' Low, Good Morning Heartache, Don't Explain and Strange Fruit. The mid-tempo Moanin' Low is a sublime example of this group's execution, with insistent solos by guitarist Joe Puma and pianist Mal Waldron.
In the early 1960s, Webster Young decided that jazz wasn't going to be able to support his family and became an educator at the University of the District of Columbia, where he directed the D.C. Music Center jazz workshop. In 2002 he moved with his family to Portland, Or., where he retired. Young died in 2003.
JazzWax tracks: Webster Young was a sideman on albums by tuba player Ray Draper (Tuba Sounds, Strange Blues), John Coltrane (Interplay) and Jackie McLean (Makin' the Changes, Fat Jazz). In 1961, Young recorded Webster Young Plays and Sings the Miles Davis Songbook. There were three albums.
But Young's For Lady (Prestige) remains his standout achievement. You'll find this one here—and the download is a steal at $5!
JazzWax note: Miles Davis and Lester Young were recorded playing just once together live during a European tour in 1956. Their contrasting styles are fascinating to hear—Davis' rapid-fire style and Young's extended notes and blues motifs. They were recorded on How High the Moon and Lady Be Good. You'll find a recording of their rare union here.
JazzWax clip: Webster Young could also play hot. Here he is bopping with Jackie McLean on Chasin' the Bird, from McLean's Makin' the Changes...