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This week on Jazz Spectrum – April 19-21, 2024

A Glimpse of Lester Young

By Fritz Byers

The tenor saxophonist Lester Young is widely – and I think plausibly – credited with inventing the use of the word “cool” to describe something hip or fashionable or, well, you know. That alone should land him in one or more Halls of Fame – who in American history has more enduringly shaped the national vocabulary with a single word? 

This cracks me up: the original OED isn’t having any of this use of cool. BUT, in a supplement, the editors added several usages. Among them are two extended entries acknowledging (but not quite approving) the use of “cool” as an adjective: “when applied to jazz music: restrained or relaxed in style.” 

Yep, we get that: the whole Birth of the Cool thing, as a reaction to bop, which was, impliedly, “hot.”

But then this: “Hence, characteristic of those who favor ‘cool’ music; relaxed; unemotional.”  


Reading on: “also used loosely as a general term of approval: ‘cool cat’.” 

The OED is always at pains to make sure we know they’re not just making stuff up. So it quotes from a New Yorker article from July 3, 1948: “The bebop people have a language of their own. Their expressions of approval include ‘cool’.”

The OED, with its solemn sprawl and immense authority, has been like word-dope to me for most of my life, but on this one, they’ve outdone themselves. And they end up as entangled in the cross-hatch histories of jazz and its language as the rest of us are. O, to have seen the first citation to “cool” be, not to the New Yorker but to Lester Young, talking backstage to Teddy Wilson and Billie Holiday, circa 1937. 

His creation of this sense of “cool” is just one part of Lester’s comprehensive personal argot. This merits attention. It’s an oral history, of course, and only few recorded examples survive. They’re worth your time, if you have a lot of it to spare. If not, just go to his music.

Regarding the music, where to start? Good question. Lester left us with three distinct bodies of work, and each of them rests securely at the apex of jazz accomplishment:

  • He was the lead saxophone soloist in Count Basie’s Orchestra from 1933 through 1940 (and for much of 1944).
  • He was, along with the pianist Teddy Wilson, an inseparable musical partner to Billie Holiday for many of her finest recordings. (Billie coined Lester’s nickname, “Pres,” as in in “President of all tenor saxophonists.” He returned the favor, calling her “Lady Day.”
  • He led his own small groups off and on throughout his career, which ended with his death, aged 49, in 1959

This week on Jazz Spectrum Friday, the 10pm hour presents three tenor saxophonists of towering reputation and influence: Lester, Coleman Hawkins, and Ben Webster. Their lives, their stories, their music, and their influence are densely intertwined, although the musical style of each is singular and instantly recognizable. Collectively they established the tenor as a, perhaps THE, definitive non-chordal instrument in jazz.

Each of the three gets a set to himself Friday night. No problem, conveying the lifetime work (albeit three sadly shortened lives) of these three in roughly 18 minutes each.

Still, you’ll get a flavoring. For Lester, we’ll focus mostly on his work with Count’s Orchestra. The set opens with one of Lester’s (and Count’s) signature tunes, “Lester Leaps In,” which showcases both the Orchestra’s unparalleled swing and Lester’s singular tone, which is at once light and driving. Lester’s solo is one that young musicians still deconstruct and study like scripture.

And the Lester set concludes with one of his most electrifying performances with Count: “Taxi War Dance,” from 1939. Eighty-plus years on, it’s difficult to conceive how radical this recording was at the time. To my ears, it still suggests advances that have not yet been fully assimilated. Count opens with his inimitable Kansas City woogie, the band succinctly responds, and then Lester is off on a solo that captures his flawless rhythmic sense as he invents line after line of melody. (The trombone soloist who follows is the under-heralded Dickie Wells.). The first tenor after the orchestral break is Buddy Tate, but then Lester returns with a few snatches of striking melodic commentary, and the tune ends with quick call-and-response breaks, including two perfect measures by Lester. All that in two minutes and fifty seconds.

If you listen to the entire Lester set, I’ll let you decide if he is cool, hot, or just brilliant.

The Song of the Week – “Don’t Blame Me” Music by Jimmy McHugh; lyrics by Dorothy Fields

Each week, Fritz exchanges thoughts with Aly Krajewski about the Song of the Week featured on Jazz Spectrum Saturday.

By Fritz Byers

Hi Aly,

There’s probably a pattern to recognize in one’s life by focusing on random things that happen in coffee shops. Of course, then you’d have to decide if the pattern has suggestive cosmic significance, or is just a reductive trope; or worse, the commodification of the zeitgeist. (I’m thinking here of Thomas Frank’s great book, now nearly 20 years old, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism.)

What? Oh, right: During a brief interlude today at a coffee shop, I heard a somewhat familiar track from Taylor Swift’s album-long response to the spidery invasions of the media into her private-life dramas – at least that’s what I take Reputation to be. The track was “Don’t Blame Me.” The phrase that caught my ears was “in the darkest little paradise.” That line, which arcs out of the melody, matches the dark mood of the production. I don’t know if the song was a hit, but it hit me.

I thought about that for a while, but then I thought about the “Don’t Blame Me” I know better – the Jimmy McHugh-Dorothy Fields one. And that’s why I chose it for this week’s Song of the Week.

Jimmy and Dorothy were an accomplished pair, separately and together. He composed the music for more than 500 songs, and she wrote lyrics for more than 400. Some, although not all, of their best work came when they collaborated. Their first song together that became a standard is “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” written for Blackbirds of 1928, a show designed for the great Bill Bojangles Robinson. Eventually, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Abbey Lincoln, elevated “I Must Have That Man,” from the same show, with their singular genius. I can’t vouch for the rest of the tunes in Blackbirds of 1928, but those two hold up just fine.

From that happy beginning they went on to adorn the Great American Songbook with some of its true gems. There are more than I can fully list here, but here are a few that I have in mind now: “Exactly Like You” “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me” “I’m in the Mood for Love” “Say It (Over and Over Again)” “Where Are You.” I just listened to Chet Baker’s 1956 recording of their “Let’s Get Lost,” which is in, but not on the soundtrack of, the haunting, novelistic documentary of that name about the trumpeter Chet Baker, so that song is also on my mind and in my ears now. 

But for Saturday’s show, it’s “Don’t Blame Me.” Jimmy and Dorothy wrote it in 1932 for a show, Clowns in Clover, that flopped before it reached Broadway. The song survived and showed up behind a Jimmy Durante comedy bit in a 1933 Three Stooges “comedy.”

The first great vocal version is by Ethel Waters in 1933, backed by the Dorsey Brothers, and that’s where we begin Saturday. Her “Stormy Weather” from the same year is one of her signature tunes, and it’s one of her three recordings that received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award. But her treatment of “Don’t Blame Me” is every bit its equal. 

The pianist Teddy Wilson has been much on my mind since I delivered an improvised homage to him during the jazz history class last month, so I went back and listened to my favorite of his several versions. I can’t decide if I should reserve the word “immaculate” for his touch or his taste – regardless, his playing on this track is enough to explain why for years Billie Holiday wouldn’t record with any other pianist.

Nat King Cole is every bit Teddy’s match for taste and elegance at the keys, plus there’s that voice of his. His version is next. Nat is one of the sizable handful of great jazz musicians whom I encountered in my single-digit years and dismissed as middling television shills, and whose brilliance and significance I only much later came to understand. His voice is easy to lavish praise on; take a little more time and appreciate the intricate inventions of his piano playing.

Then Charlie Parker’s ravishing treatment: you can catch only fleeting bits of the melody in this extended solo, but you’ll get a generous portion of Charlie’s unparalleled sense of beauty. He’s justifiably revered for the speed of his playing and the ingenuity of his harmonic imagination. But this tune causes me to think of the thing he said about music that most sticks with me: “music is playing clean and looking for the pretty notes.”

The first set concludes with a sharply contrasting version by Coleman Hawkins, a typically muscular display of the Hawk’s mastery of the tenor. (During the 10pm hour on Jazz Spectrum Friday, we focus on the three tenors who bestrode the late 30s and established the instrument as a central part of jazz instrumentation: Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, and Ben Webster.)

The second set opens with the latest singer I’ve adopted as a favorite – Lorez Alexandria. I’m embarrassed I missed her for so long. Maybe it’s just the early bedazzlement of a crush, but I think of her now as occupying a place alongside Dinah Washington and Carmen McRae as a singer of great vocal range, deep-dyed swing, and a highly personal, evocative way with a lyric. This track is from her overlooked 1959 masterwork, The Band Swings, Lorez Sings. Indeed.

For reasons that are rooted in an unfair gag I heard decades ago, I’ve played Yusef Lateef’s music far less on the show than his recordings warrant. A friend mentioned Yusef recently, we listened to a track or two, and I vowed to redress my shortfall. So you’ll hear his version, from Eastern Sounds (1961). Check out Barry Harris’s piano playing.

Then, the vocalist Cassandra Wilson with the trumpeter Terence Blanchard. This is from Terence’s release, Let’s Get Lost, a collection of Jimmy McHugh tunes, many of them performed with various female vocalists.  This is a particular highlight of a terrific album.

Finally, a pair of unwaveringly sophisticated melodists, the trumpeter Art Farmer and the saxophonist Frank Morgan. Art never played a note that didn’t feel lyrical, and Frank Morgan blends his be-bop roots and his early affinities for Charlie Parker with a bit of Art’s sensibility to produce a ravishing solo. 

I’m already accustomed to way in which you take these materials and send them soaring, so I’ll refrain from playing around with any of the digressive thoughts the title of the song suggests and leave that fun to you.

Can’t wait to read.

From the sunny side of the street,


Aly's Response

Happy April Fritz,

As you know, I have a bit of a thing for patterns (both visual and figurative); so, you may have just activated my sleeper agent in kicking this week's note off with your coffee shop pattern anecdote. I couldn't help but read the rest of your writing through the lens of patterning, both intricate and mundane, where even the seemingly random encounters between your SotW selections can reveal deeper threads of connection. It's like staring at the stars and trying to decipher the constellations: sometimes, the patterns we find are just cosmic coincidences, but other times, they hint at something more profound. And of course, sometimes there aren't any patterns at all – just a woman crazily staring up at the sky and screaming, "I SEE IT!" 

(Not that I would know that example from personal experience, of course.)
I must admit this was a new song for me! I knew several other McHugh-Fields tunes, but not "Don't Blame Me" – definitely a lovely listen for the first time. I did a little research on the tune subsequent to my listening session. It seems that in the kaleidoscope of jazz history, "Don't Blame Me" emerges as a recurring motif, each rendition offering a unique pattern of expression and interpretation. Ethel Waters, with her timeless rendition alongside Dorsey & Dorsey et. al., lays a great foundation for this melodic journey. Her velvety vocals, coupled with the Dorsey Brothers' lush accompaniment, create a pattern of elegance and sophistication that set the stage for what's to come.
Enter Teddy Wilson, whose name I find to be synonymous with impeccable taste and virtuosity at the piano. His rendition becomes a study in musical precision, each note woven into a delicate pattern of harmony and melody. It's no wonder that Billie, herself a connoisseur of musical perfection, found solace in Wilson's accompaniment, a testament to the seamless interplay between pianist and vocalist. 
Following Wilson's pattern of excellence, Nat King Cole steps into the spotlight, his buttery voice and mastery of the keys adding yet another flavor to this set of interpretations. Cole's rendition is a study in elegance, each keystroke a brushstroke in a portrait of musical sophistication. It's a reminder that greatness often hides in plain sight, waiting to be peeled back and explored just beneath the surface. As I listened to these versions this week, I quickly took note of the patterns that emerged – the subtle nuances in phrasing, the intricate interplay between instrumentalists, the timeless beauty of the melodies. 

But it's your keen eye (ear?) for the overlooked patterns – the hidden gems like Lorez Alexandria and Yusef Lateef – that truly sets this SotW set apart. Like a skilled archaeologist unearthing forgotten artifacts, these versions breathe new life into Jim & Dot's melody, revealing the hidden patterns of genius hiding juuuust beneath the surface. As is typical of my weekly listening session of these sets, I find myself enamored with these performances almost as much as the originals. 

This Saturday's setlist, with your usual & carefully curated lineup of jazz legends, is a masterclass in recognizing patterns of brilliance. From Ethel's soulful rendition to Charlie Parker's virtuosic improvisation, each performance adds another weft to the intricate tapestry of jazz history. When you layer versions of "Don't Blame Me" with deviations like Yusef's performance into this weave, the resulting fabric becomes all the more rich and textured. A beautiful pattern indeed.

So as you continue to weave your musical tapestries on the airwaves, I hope you continue to remember that patterns are not just lines on a page or notes in a score – they're the threads that bind us together, reminding us of the beauty and complexity of the world around us. Here's to embracing the patterns, both literal and figurative, that make life a score worth listening to. (Ack - this got a little sappy at the end, didn't it? I'll be back with a bit more of that oft-beloved pragmatism next week. Time to go read the Wall St. Journal and eat some unflavored oats...)

Yours in rhythm and rhyme and pattern and time,

Jazz Spectrum