Book Review: Rock & Roll Books
Reviewed by Jay Trachtenberg, Fri., Nov. 30, 2007
Being Prez: The Life & Music of Lester Youngby Dave Gelly
Oxford University Press, 171 pp., $23.95
He was known as Prez for good reason. As the president of all the saxophonists, Lester Young turned the jazz world on its ear when he blew out of Kansas City with the Count Basie Orchestra in 1936. His unique rhythmic virtuosity, cool and nimble sound, and bottomless wellspring of lyrical creativity transformed the evolution of saxophone-playing forever. Unfortunately, the remarkable sensitivity and gentleness that characterized his music left him ill-prepared to deal with the harshness of life, and by 1959, at the age of 49, his brilliant flame burned out. In this slim volume, British jazz writer Dave Gelly traces Young's career, beginning with his family's traveling band, through his time in Kansas City and New York with Basie, plus his years of checkered success as a solo artist revered by the jazz world and his ultimate decline. Gelly's at his best when examining Young's many superb recordings, although he gets a bit technical at times. This fan would have liked more on Young's storied musical romance with Billie Holiday. After all, it was she who dubbed him Prez and he who nicknamed her Lady Day. Nevertheless, Being Prez remains a thoughtful catalyst for dusting off Lester Young's magic.