Wednesday, April 19, 2006
Poems in the Lestorian Mode
Dexter Gordon grew up in Los Angeles and recalled young hipsters in the '30s on the street corner laying down rhymes to the tenor saxophone solos that Lester Young spun out for the Basie band.
The Beat writers and poets yet to come also dug Lester; Allen Ginsberg, speaking about his poem "Howl", said, "I depended on the word 'who' to keep the beat, a base to keep measure, return to and take off again onto another streak of invention..." (blowing, jazzlike) "Lester Young, actually is what i was thinking about...'Howl' is all 'Lester Leaps In'. And I got that from Kerouac."
When off-duty from his gig as poet of the tenor saxophone, Lester Young himself spoke, if he spoke at all, in phrases, metaphors, of is own invention -'takes' or improvisations riffed off the changes life handed him. Lester's poetic language was like a code, sometimes a playful way to conceal his true thoughts from the "unhip" but often a total puzzlement to his fellow musicians.
The pianist Jimmy Rowles, who composed the lovely jazz standard "The Peacocks", played with Lester for a few years and recalled, "You had to break that code to understand him. it was like memorizing a dictionary, and I think it took me about three months."
The keys on the piano or horn were "people", "left people" the fingers of pianist's left hand. The bridge of a tune "George Washington". If Lester was on the bandstand and wanted the bass player to take a solo
he would look over at him and say, "Put me in the basement". Drummer Roy Haynes was asked by Lester to join his band; "He didn't just come out and say 'Do you want to join my band?', Instead he said, 'Do you have eyes for the slave?'."
If Prez liked or was digging something he'd say "eyes!" and in some cases "bulging eyes!" or "Catalina eyes!" or "no eyes" if he didn't. If he was happy to see someone it was "bells!". "How are your feelings?" was a greeting - not a tough one...A new girlfriend was "a new hat" - then there were variations; "mexican hat dance", "skull-cap", and "homburg". A particularly good-looking woman was a "pound-cake". "Bing and Bob" (ala Crosby and Hope) were the police.
If there was an unpleasant person on the scene, rather than use "m-fer" Lester would say "Tommy Tucker is here" or another word similar in rhyme. Someone that would be a bringdown was "Von Hangman".
He'd punctuate his phrases with some Slim Gaillard jive like "oodastadis", "vout" and "oreeney". Something inordinately expensive was "chandelier". I picture Lester, at the counter of today's corporate coffeehouse with his long braided hair under the porkpie hat, all in black, and spats purchasing a latte and muffin;
"That will be 8 dollars,sir"
His longtime fave drummer Jo Jones has this memory; "I saw Lester across the street in New York one day with one of his children - very young, you know. So i crossed over and asked him how he was doing. Now what he wanted to tell me was that he didn't mind if the child wet itself, but he didn't want to clean up any shit. So what he said was, 'I don't mind the waterfall, but I can't take the mustard!:
Thirty-some years ago listening to an early Billie Holiday/Teddy Wilson record in the dark, I heard a horn come in during the break of "Sun Showers" - it was the coolest/warmest swingingest little 8 bar phrase in a sound so voice-like and direct-it was like a being from out-of-this-world world that just materialized, drawn to the euphoric smoke-cloud of the session to give everybody just a taste enough...it was Lester and it was just a taste enough for me vow to learn the tenor sax one day if only to play something just close to a few notes of of what I'd heard.
Lester Young discography:
note: Anything before 1945 is Lester at his peak. The irony is that as Lester's health problems began to severely effect his playing (beginning after his return from the army in the 40's) he finally was able to make recordings under his own name. The upshot of this is that the novice listener comes across these later recordings more readily and assumes - scratching his head - that this is the Lester Young that inspired Charlie Parker, Wardell Gray, Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, Miles Davis etc... Not so, his early work was what turned the direction of jazz around, although once in awhile a gem that echoed the facile brilliance of the early days pops up in the later years.
the good stuff....
Easy Does It: 1936-1940 (a lot of his solos with Basie and some great samll group sessions)
The Lester Young Story (box set from the UK)- a great well-rounded set.
The Keynote Sessions
Alladin Sessions (from 1942 and 1945)
Spirituals to Swing; Carnegie Hall 1938
(my favorite Lester is in relaxed, groovin' small group sessions and this set features some fantastic quartet/quintet numbers with Lester and Charlie Christian)
A Lester Young Reader - edited by Lewis Porter
You Just Fight For Your Life - Frank Buchmann-Moller