Review: A Jazz Great Done Wrong

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Along with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker, the legendary tenor saxophonist Lester Young is considered one of the seminal figures in the history of jazz. From his first recorded solo in 1936 through his small group sessions with Billie Holiday and his memorable stint with the Count Basie Orchestra, Young (known as "Pres," short for "President of the Tenor Saxophone") created some of the most memorable recordings in American music. Douglas Henry Daniels, a professor of History and Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has spent more than two decades investigating the legend of Lester Young, and the result is his new biography, "Lester Leaps In: The Life and Times of Lester 'Pres' Young" (Beacon Press; 524 pages; $30).

Unfortunately, Daniels is a neophyte biographer (he admits as much, saying, "I had never really thought of writing one before I began this book"), and his inexperience shows. While the book is impressively researched and lavishly documented (Daniels has tracked down many previously untapped sources among Young's relatives and fellow musicians), it feels curiously inert, without any of the narrative drive you would expect in a biography of as vivid a figure as Lester Young. And while the author shows great enthusiasm for highlighting the context of Young's life (with interpolated essays on everything from the African American oral tradition to the history of marijuana), when it comes to narrating that life, Daniels sometimes gives the impression that he's less than interested in telling the full story.

For example: in 1919, when Lester Young's parents had separated and he was living with his mother, Young's father Willis, a teacher of music who toured with his own company, abducted the pre-pubescent boy in his mother's absence and took him on the road with him to perform in his shows. Lester Young wouldn't see his mother again for years. Does Daniels discuss this parental kidnapping, which clearly had a traumatic effect on the child's life, at any length? He merely employs the euphemism that the father "assumed charge of" Lester and his two siblings, and lets it go at that. He'll theorize at length about what music Young's father might have heard as a young man, but won't discuss how being torn away from his mother at a tender age might have damaged the psyche of one of the most sensitive men ever to play jazz. (When Young, late in life, leaves his own wife and children, it gets barely a mention).

Daniels' whole treatment of Young's relationship with his father seems skewed by his desire to appease Young's family, who provided him with much of his material, by portraying the saxophonist's father in as charitable a light as possible, when it's clear even from Daniels' muted account that Willis was an abusive parent whose constant beatings drove Young to run away several times in an attempt to escape the abuse.

Another example highlights even more clearly Daniels' shortcomings as a biographer. After Young's horrific stint in the armed services during World War II — revealingly, Daniels doesn't seem to have made any effort over the two decades it took to write his book to track down any of the Army personnel who served with Young, many of whom could be presumed to have been still alive when Daniels began his research — he began a long-time association with Norman Granz's floating jam session, called Jazz at the Philharmonic. A few weeks after his dishonorable discharge, Young appeared at the January, 1946 concert at the Philharmonic Auditorium at Los Angeles. The air was electric that night, because this was to be a meeting of the titans: Lester Young, the great tenor genius of the Swing Era, going head to head with the new kid in town, bebop genius Charlie Parker. The concert that ensued was one of the most dramatic in jazz history, ranking up there with Duke Ellington's so-called comeback at the Newport Jazz festival a decade later. So how does Daniels treat this legendary event in his biography? He doesn't. He ignores it. Completely. I'm not kidding.

Daniels' contempt for jazz writers and critics knows no bounds, but his own attempts at musicological analysis are feeble at best. He continually drags in tangential asides to the history of Black culture that, while interesting in themselves, shed little light on jazz's most enigmatic artist. He's apparently tracked down the names of nearly every Lester Young relative that appears in any phone book in America in the early 20th century (and pedantically mentions them all), but Young's own relationship with Billie Holiday, with whom he had one of the most productive partnerships in jazz history, is treated scantily at best.

A biography is in many ways akin to a marriage, its success depending on what each person brings to the mix, in the compatibility or lack thereof between author and subject. Not since Bob Woodward's misbegotten attempt to tell the story of John Belushi in Wired has a biographer been so ill suited to write the life of a creative artist as Daniels is to write about Lester Young. When it comes to illuminating the background, he can be fitfully incisive, but when it comes to telling the story of one of jazz's most protean geniuses (which is, after all, what a biographer is supposed to do), he achieves what I would have thought impossible — he makes one of the most engrossing lives in the history of American music seem dull.

When the first volume of Columbia's multi-LP set "The Lester Young Story" (which Sony, shamefully, has still not put out on compact disc) was released in the late 1970s, a critic enthused that this was "jazz at its most Mozartean," and Daniels' take on this assessment is revealing. "The critics' Eurocentric emphasis — as when they likened Young to Mozart, for example — was also troubling… both in and of itself and because it carried such bald connotations of racial superiority in the suggestion that the saxophonist was worthy of comparison with this or that European master." I'll tell you what — rather than troubling yourself plowing through this pompous and dreary academic tome, why don't we both do something more interesting? I'll listen to my Lester Young CDs, while you try and find a musician who'll feel insulted if you compare him to Mozart.