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Lester Young-This President Wears A Pork Pie Hat

Updated: Apr 17, 2023

Lester Young was an incredibly influential saxophonist and musician. Known for his signature Pork Pie Hat and work with vocalist Billie Holliday, "The President,” or "Prez" as he was known, combined a unique linear saxophone style with an airy, light sound.

Lester's early work in the mid 30's with the Count Basie Band is legendary; his rhythmic drive or "swing" became a model for many future generations of saxophonists, including Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz. There was something truly special in the saxophone work of Lester Young, a timeless beauty that will certainly survive forever.

His work on clarinet is also worth investigating and although he played a metal clarinet, what comes through in his recorded clarinet work is that same sense of humor, fascinating note choice and the inimitable rhythmic placement of his phrases.

I make it a point to introduce the solos of Lester Young to tenor saxophone students at an early stage of their improvising development. Ad Lib Blues, Blue Lester and Poundcake can be taught very quickly phrase by phrase to students with some reasonable technical background, and once I have them playing the melodic line, I have them play along with the recording in headphones by ear. The idea is to as deeply as possible absorb the feeling and nuances, as well as the notes, of the soloist. I’ve seen this study completely transform many young musicians. Blue Lester and Poundcake were the first two Lester Young solos that Warne Marsh suggested I learn, and I did play both of them for him. Not well, mind you, but I did get through them, and his critique has lasted a lifetime.

Ad Lib Blues is noteworthy for the ascending chromatic line that Lester constructs. Notice how the line snakes upwards and swings like crazy.

Poundcake is two choruses of G concert blues. I consider this solo to be a cousin of the more elaborate Lady Be Good solo that made Lester famous initially. Both are in the same key, and you can hear some similar feeling and style in Poundcake and Lady Be Good. Both solos lie very comfortably on the tenor saxophone, and contain classic Lester Young solo statements. Lady Be Good, with Count Basie on piano, is a perfect daily warm up once you have learned it. Warne Marsh used to tell his students to warm up with any Lester solo in any key, at any tempo.

Blue Lester has to be among the greatest saxophone pieces ever recorded. Its lyrical quality and heartbreaking saxophone tone and vibrato are incredibly evocative. It’s as if you are in a jazz club listening to Lester pour out his heart, and he packs many beautiful and specific harmonic choices into this minor tonality. I now understand why Warne wanted young saxophonists to absorb this solo, it is an incredible statement of warmth, harmony and tone, certain to grab a student and influence his conception.

I don’t think you can do enough of learning of solos or transcribing as a young improviser. I like to learn the solo, maybe slowing it down with Transcribe or some other variable tempo software, and once I’ve learned it I literally just play it over and over for weeks until I fully absorb it. Only after that do I then go to the music notation software to write it out, but that’s only after thoroughly absorbing it by ear. Often the written representation reveals some interesting details that I may not have fully understood, which I believe makes this step necessary and rewarding in itself. Lastly I often pull nice phrases out of the solo and transpose them to different starting positions, not as an exercise in all twelve keys, but just to see how they fit on the horn and how they sound in different registers, and to see if they fit my ear so to speak from these different starting points.

Aspiring improvisers on any instrument should learn as many Lester Young solos as they possibly can. His influence will get you going in the exact right direction from note one. In particular tenor players will then have a great foundation to proceed to Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon and more modern tenor players like Bob Mintzer and Mike Brecker. Learning jazz solos by ear is a very valuable study, get into doing it and you will transform your playing in ways you’ve never imagined.

Thanks for stopping by my Blog…Markos

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