Lester Young’s authority over his instrument inspired Billie Holiday to refer to him as the President of the Tenor Saxophone, or “the Pres” (he in turn called her “Lady Day”). Though he is widely acknowledged to be one of the giants of jazz, his headstone (unlike Robinson’s) says nothing of his accomplishments. There is, however, testimony that here lies a good man who was much loved. “Till we shall meet and never part,” reads the epitaph. That is the last line of a poem by an English poet, Henry King, in memory of his wife, whom he called his “matchless never to be forgotten friend.” Half a century after Lester Young’s death in 1959, the crown of his stone is usually crowded with rocks of remembrance and sheets of music left by his fans. He usually performed in an ugly flat-topped, wide-brimmed “porkpie” hat, and he cocked his saxophone at an awkward angle across his body so as not to poke the back of the player in front of him. Yet he is widely regarded as one of the transformative figures in the history of popular music. He was a shy, often melancholy, loner with a boyish face and what seemed to some people to be the saddest eyes they had ever seen. Sadness there surely was during his fifty years, what with divorces, violence, alcoholism, drug abuse, and a miserable army stint that included a court martial and a stint in the detention barracks.
Born in southern Mississippi in 1909, he was raised by his musician parents amid the clamor of the New Orleans jazz scene. When he turned ten his father took him off on the minstrel show and carnival circuit with the Young Family Band. He eventually ran off and for years played in jazz bands, becoming close with Holiday, the remarkable young singer with whom he developed similar styles. Just as William Steinitz reinvented the rules for winning chess matches, Young turned jazz inside out and upside down – “like nothing we’d ever heard” was the judgment of one of his bandleaders, Count Basie.
Information taken from the book Green Oasis in Brooklyn: The Evergreens Cemetery by John Rousmaniere. Learn more here.