Lester Young was born on August 27, 1909 in Woodville, Mississippi to a pair of musicians. His father was a music professor and his mother was a piano teacher. Young began performing at the age of 10 when his father was leading carnival-minstrel bands. He taught Lester and his siblings to dance, play drums, and eventually, taught Lester to play the saxophone.
In the 1930s, Young’s jazz band journey began with a move to Minneapolis. He played in small local bands and toured with groups such as the Oklahoma City Blue Devils. In 1930, he married his first wife, Beatrice Tolliver. In 1934, Young moved to New York and began playing with Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra; unfortunately, his sound was so hated by the other musicians, specifically the other saxophonists, that they refused to help him learn Henderson’s arrangements and Young was forced to move back to Minneapolis. He eventually made his way to Kansas City, where things began to look up.
In 1936, Young joined the Count Basie Orchestra and toured with them across the country. He played with renowned musicians such as Buck Clayton, Herschel Evans, and singer Billie Holiday, who would become a lifelong friend. Musicians from his era and today credit his sound for influencing and inspiring them. His sound is also attributed with starting the “cool school” in jazz which refers to an understated or subdued feeling in the music. Billie Holiday gave him his nickname, Prez, short for “President of Tenor Saxophonists.” Today, Young is best known for his songs Taxi War Dance, D.B. Blues, and Lester Leaps In. In 1937, he married his second wife, Mary Dale; they were together until 1946. In 1941, Lester began fronting his own band and played several clubs in New York. He returned to Basie’s band in 1943 but would continue to lead his own groups as well.
During World War II, Young was drafted into the Army. He was sent to basic training at Fort McClellan, Alabama. He refused to cut his hair, wear army boots, or fire a gun. He was caught smoking marijuana and was court-martialed and put in a detention barracks for a year. This experience is what inspired his song D.B. Blues. He was eventually dishonorably discharged in 1945. In 1948, Young married his third wife, Mary Berkeley and they had two children, Lester, Jr. and Yvette. Sadly,Young’s army experience would traumatize him for the rest of his life. He began drinking heavily, performing with a much darker tone, suffering from panic attacks, and eventually had a nervous breakdown in 1955. He continued to perform and even went on a European tour in 1959, but after returning to the states he suffered from internal bleeding due to the effects of alcoholism and passed away on March 14.
Prior to his passing, Young took part in the legendary TV-show The Sound of Jazz. For this performance, he was reunited with Billie Holiday. She sang Fine and Mellow and Lester’s saxophone solo for that performance is sometimes credited as being the most moving music ever captured on television.