Woodville native became jazz legend

Lester Young

Natchez Democrat Newspaper
Natchez Staff

Published - Sunday, January 25, 2004

(Woodville, Mississippi) - And no other Magnolia State musician more profoundly affected the course of jazz music, according to Dr. Ronald V. Myers, artistic director for the Mississippi Jazz and Heritage Program.

"He's the greatest jazz legacy in Mississippi - the father of the modern jazz saxophone," Myers said.

Myers has coordinated the Lester Young Memorial Jazz Festival on Young's birthday in August for several years. The event was first held on the Courthouse Square in Woodville in 1991.

"I'd like to get back down there (to Woodville) again - maybe this year," Myers said.

Born in 1909, Young learned violin, trumpet and drums from his father, Willis Hardy Young.

At age 11, he left Woodville for Minneapolis with his father, playing in carnival bands at tent shows in the Midwest. By 19, Young had changed his instrument of choice to tenor sax and began performing with jazz groups in Minneapolis and Kansas City.

Young rose to national fame in 1936 as a member of Count Basie's orchestra. He later recorded and performed with such jazz icons as singer Billie Holiday. It was Holiday who nicknamed Young "Prez" out of respect for his commanding saxophone talent, Myers said.

In the 1940s, Young worked in Los Angeles with Nat King Cole, Al Sears and Dizzie Gillespie. Young's brother, Lee, joined his band and played drums. Some of Young's most celebrated recordings included "Honeysuckle Rose," "Twelfth Street Rag" and "This Year's Kisses." He was named the all-time greatest tenor saxophone player by the Encyclopedia Yearbook of Jazz in 1957 and featured on The Sound of Jazz television series in 1957.

Young's sister, Woodville native and Baton Rouge resident Vivian Johnson, was several years younger than her famous brother and only recalls seeing him once. "I saw him one time when we we went to New Orleans in 1953. It was at a concert hall on Simon Bolivar Street. Ruth Brown was singing with him," Johnson said.

Young died in 1959, but his trademark soft style influenced a generation of jazz players, including Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon and Al Cohn. In Woodville, construction is underway on the African American Cultural Museum, which will feature exhibits on Young and other black artists and personalities from Wilkinson County, according to Wilkinson County Chancery Clerk and museum committee member Thomas Tolliver. "Lester Young was an improviser who contributed immensely to jazz music, and we'll be honored to share his legacy with others," Tolliver said.

But it was Young himself who may have best described the significance of his work with the simple advice he often gave to others:

"You gotta be original, man."


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