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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 325

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This is the grave of Lester Young.

Born in 1909 in Woodville, Mississippi, Young grew up in New Orleans as part of a family of musicians. But although professional musicians, they were also poor, as there wasn’t much space for black musicians to make money in Gilded Age New Orleans, or New Gilded Age New Orleans for that matter, outside of a few exceptions. So Young started working at the age of 5 shining shoes and selling newspapers, both common jobs for dirt poor children, until he was old enough to play live music. That didn’t take long. He was a brilliant musician from the time he was a child and learned to play several instruments by the time he was 10. He was also headstrong, ambitious, and angry about discrimination. He eventually left the family band in 1927 because he refused to stay in the segregated hotel required touring the south. He moved to the north for good by 1932 and by 1933 was in Kansas City. There, he found a job in Count Basie’s band as a tenor saxophonist. He played mostly with Basie until 1940, also serving time in Fletcher Henderson and Andy Kirk’s bands. He became one of Basie’s top players on both tenor and clarinet. It was also during these years that he became close with Billie Holiday, a lifelong friendship for them, with him moving in with her and her mother, although it does not seem their friendship was any more than platonic.

Young went out on his own in 1940, leading some bands with his brother, recording with Holiday a bit, but not having that much success. He rejoined Basie by 1944, when he was drafted into the Army. That didn’t go well as Young was soon found with marijuana on him, was court-martialed, and served a year in detention before being released with a dishonorable discharge in late 1945.

After the war, Young went out on his own again and this time had much more success. He toured heavily in the late 40s, made many great recordings, and also vastly increased his drinking, which required treatment in 1955 after a few years of declining quality in his music. He continued recording on his own, playing with Basie now and again, and touring in the U.S. and Europe. He reunited with Billie Holiday in 1957 on the CBS special The Sound of Jazz. By this time though, both were in severe health decline, in Young’s case, from a renewed bout of drinking that included him more or less not eating as well. In March 1959, Young played some shows and recorded a bit in Paris with Kenny Clarke. He flew back to New York and died that night. He was 49 years of age.

Let’s listen to some Lester Young.

Lester Young is buried in The Evergreens Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.

If you would like this series to visit more of our greatest jazz musicians, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. As one might expect, Billie Holiday is in New York and Count Basie in East Farmingdale, NY. I imagine a majority of jazz musicians are in fact buried in New York and the surrounding area, but of course it costs a lot to do anything in New York, including getting out to graves. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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