Lester Willis Young (August 27, 1909 – March 15, 1959), nicknamed "Pres" or "Prez", was an American jazz tenor saxophonist and occasional clarinetist.
Coming to prominence while a member of Count Basie's orchestra, Young was one of the most influential players on his instrument. In contrast to many of his hard-driving peers, Young played with a relaxed, cool tone and used sophisticated harmonies, using what one critic called "a free-floating style, wheeling and diving like a gull, banking with low, funky riffs that pleased dancers and listeners alike".
Lester Young was born in Woodville, Mississippi, on August 27, 1909. His mother was Lizetta Young (née Johnson), and his father was Willis Handy Young, originally from Louisiana. Lester had two siblings – Leonidas Raymond, who became a drummer, and Irma Cornelia. He grew up in a musical family. His father was a teacher and band leader, and several other relatives performed professionally.
While growing up in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans, he worked from the age of five to make money for the family. He sold newspapers and shined shoes. By the time he was ten, he had learned the basics of trumpet, violin, and drums, and joined the Young Family Band touring with carnivals and playing in regional cities in the Southwest In his teens he and his father clashed, and he often left home for long periods.
Young left the family band in 1927 at the age of 18 because he refused to tour in the Southern United States, where Jim Crow laws were in effect and racial segregation was required in public facilities. He became a member of the Bostonians, led by Art Bronson, and chose tenor saxophone over alto as his primary instrument. He made a habit of leaving, working, then going home. He left home permanently in 1932 when he became a member of the Blue Devils led by Walter Page.
In 1933, Young settled in Kansas City, where after playing briefly in several bands, he rose to prominence with Count Basie. His playing in the Basie band was characterized by a relaxed style which contrasted sharply with the more forceful approach of Coleman Hawkins, the dominant tenor sax player of the day. One of Young's key influences was Frank Trumbauer, who came to prominence in the 1920s with Paul Whiteman and played the C-melody saxophone (between the alto and tenor in pitch).
Young left the Basie band to replace Hawkins in Fletcher Henderson's orchestra. He soon left Henderson to play in the Andy Kirk band (for six months) before returning to Basie. While with Basie, Young made small-group recordings for Milt Gabler's Commodore Records, The Kansas City Sessions. Although they were recorded in New York (in 1938, with a reunion in 1944), they are named after the group, the Kansas City Seven, and comprised Buck Clayton, Dicky Wells, Basie, Young, Freddie Green, Rodney Richardson, and Jo Jones. Young played clarinet as well as tenor in these sessions. Young is described as playing the clarinet in a "liquid, nervous style." As well as the Kansas City Sessions, his clarinet work from 1938–39 is documented on recordings with Basie, Billie Holiday, Basie small groups, and the organist Glenn Hardman. Billie and Lester met at a Harlem jam session in the early 30s and worked together in the Count Basie band and in nightclubs on New York's 52nd St. At one point Lester moved into the apartment Billie shared with her mother, Sadie Fagan. Holiday always insisted their relationship was strictly platonic. She gave Lester the nickname "Prez" after President Franklin Roosevelt, the "greatest man around" in Billie's mind. Playing on her name, he would call her "Lady Day." Their famously empathetic classic recordings with Teddy Wilson date from this era.
After Young's clarinet was stolen in 1939, he abandoned the instrument until about 1957. That year Norman Granz gave him one and urged him to play it (with far different results at that stage in Young's life—see below).
In September 1944, Young and Jo Jones were in Los Angeles with the Basie Band when they were inducted into the U.S. Army. Unlike many white musicians, who were placed in band outfits such as the ones led by Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw, Young was assigned to the regular army where he was not allowed to play his saxophone. Based in Ft. McClellan, Alabama, Young was found with marijuana and alcohol among his possessions. He was soon court-martialed. Young did not fight the charges and was convicted. He served one traumatic year in a detention barracks and was dishonorably discharged in late 1945. His experience inspired his composition "D.B. Blues" (with D.B. standing for detention barracks).