Today is the birthday of the great jazz saxophonist Lester Young (1909-1959). This one blew my mind — to learn that Lester Young, whom I think of as the ultimate be bop hep cat, had a background in vaudeville!
He grew up in his family’s musical act, The Young Family Band, which played the black vaudeville and carnival circuits. His father taught him to play trumpet, violin, drums and woodwinds. At 18 he peeled off on his own, and played with a number of bands before he joined up with Count Basie’s Orchestra, which is where he made a name for himself as a musician (he played with Basie on-again/ off-again through 1943, when he was drafted into the army. He also played with Fletcher Henderson’s band, and on records with the likes of Billie Holiday and Nat King Cole. After the war (the be bop era) he played with Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic, and with a number of small combos. His last years were a downward trajectory of alcoholism and decline. But he is remembered as one of the great jazz soloists of all time.
He was reportedly a shadow of his former self by the time of this clip (1958), but he sure sounds good to me! Willie “The Lion” Smith is on piano:
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc