Profiling The Cool: Lester Young and the Language of Jazz

The first percussive patterns I was taught at the age of fourteen stemmed from the sphere of the Jazz world, and I imagine it was a similar path for every other percussionist even on a level where it is not made clear, it would be difficult not to find influences in other musical forms that didn’t originally stem from Jazz. Being brought up on a diet of modern music in the family I was never subjected to Jazz, nor was it explored in depth at school; it was purely for practice, a practice in where I did not learn about the musician behind the tubs’, I had incorporated what I had heard here into my style of playing moving on to joining metal and punk acts.
It wasn’t until later in life that I begun opening this particular world to my ears but with already trained ears I always pick out the percussion section first; so when I discovered the works of
Art Blakey, Bernard Purdie and Kenny Clarke, Clarke who had pioneered the use of signature swing in be-bop, had I begun to truly understand their importance and innovative practices. The amount of appreciation gained through just listening has lead me on a passionate journey of discovery and those names above are just a few that offered great influence and artistry that go beyond the basic patterns in which were dominant in the earlier styles of Jazz music, particularly swing – it became necessary break these patterns and open up new possibilities and explore deeper creativity.

During my auto-didactic study of Jazz and its surrounding literature, there exists a language, a language that has sparked a curiosity in uncovering its roots, and although the tune has been sung to some degree (thank you to the 1996 study by Joel Dinerstein) I wanted to revisit this and reinforce the credit to a one, Lester Young – a name who is lost amongst the behemoths of Jazz.

To which we begin Profiling the Cool.

To understand the language that was widely used in the Jazz era we need to look briefly at modern history and the major events that took place between 1920-1960. Each of these events would induce further impacts on the society of Black Americans and the injustices they suffered, most of which still exist today and with current world-wide politics shifting towards more right-wing conservatism and their now adopting of populist political themes, we are subjected to further segregation of the ‘them and us’, which has given to a rise of racism back to front line socio politics.

There were three major events that put a strain on US society that influenced the nurturing and language of Jazz and how it came to be.
From 1920 there was the US Prohibition which was brought on by religious conservatives across the country voting in favour of a federal ban on alcohol
(except on religious grounds) and had been ongoing as a campaign since the late 1800s, and what begun to develop out of this was a wave of organised crime offering abundant provisions of illegal ‘bootlegged’ alcohol with the following rise of Speakeasies. Speakeasies would become home for the late night Jam sessions – an active breeding ground for Jazz musicians.
The Great Depression of the early 1930’s followed with a spike of unemployment, a slump in the economy and the worsening of already impoverished areas, turning them into slums.

The triggering of the Depression sparked a national migration which resulted in musicians moving from the Southern states up Northward towards the big cities: Chicago, Detroit and New York City, bringing with them the early blueprints of Jazz sparking new influences on the young Black Americans, where they saw possibilities to take up a career as a musician and leading to a pivotal change in the entertainment industry by replacing the White American as the often only face of entertainment.
Tensions built throughout the depression and toward the early 1940’s, World War II had begun and in late 1941, the devastating bombing of Pearl Harbour pulling the US into a more active role in the War whereas before their role was in additional provisions to the allied forces.  

In 1941 many were drafted into the War and the experience that Black American communities suffered at home with the stringent segregation laws in place were similar to the ones that plagued Nazi States (it wouldn’t be beyond doubt to say this it was mirroring Nazi Germany’s Ghetto developments for Jewish peoples), adding insult to injury on the account that most were fighting in continental Europe against the brand of ‘Fascism’ whilst racism was still at the forefront of politics and society all across the United States, this exhibited a total lack of political self-awareness on the social injustices and lack of freedom that the US military were fighting against abroad, but were not granted back home.


Many across the US were heavily competing for jobs at home, where a large percentage enrolled into the army, housing issues and the exploitation of impoverished areas, especially in Harlem, led to a series of race riots that broke out in 1943 against landowners and landlords dramatically increasing rents on areas tenants already having little income to give. During these years there was also the mass internment of Japanese Americans, which would leave an already fearful community of minorities in the US in a deeper and disillusioned fear of what this would set a precedent.

With the rise of Speakeasies came The Cotton Club –  a landmark establishment for Jazz that was located in central Harlem on 142nd Street and Lenox originally opened in the 1920’s by boxer Jack Johnson under the name ‘Club Deluxe’, it was then soon bought out in 1923 by Manhattan’s most prominent racketeer, Owney Madden. It’s earlier period in the early 1920s took place during the time of the US Prohibition and Madden, who was a fully fledged ‘bootlegger’ became responsible for importing an abundance of illegal alcoholic beverages, he maintained the clubs notoriety all throughout, even after its brief closure in 1925. The Cotton Club maintained the racial stereotyping and division of the time, in New York City’s clubbing establishments this division between Black and White Americans was widespread. It was a whites-only club in regards of the clientele, but staff, musicians and dancers were mostly Black, in which this maintained a view that Black Americans were to provide an appeased and subservient level of entertainment to the White audience, a continuous smile in the face of adversity. The middle class of New Yorkers would often use the Cotton Club for their first taste of the bohemian, dipping their toe into the uptown nightlife in the safe and contained segregation that it offered to it’s clientele –  an establishment like many others at the time – where Blacks were made to descend into the basements after performance.

Even in the face of this adversity, careers were formed and musicians such as; Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Billie Holiday managed to progress even with the stereotypical limitations that were imposed upon them, they were to create a level of sophistication in their art, an art form that mocked the oppressive actions of white culture through their limitless creativity, and would begin forging a new path, a path that aspired to lend a voice, a voice that yearned for equality.


A lack of shifting of the inequality between black and white communities there were a few safe havens for creative exploration, one that put this racial segregation aside – it was establishments located in the more bohemian and often lower class areas of Harlem, that included: Monroe’s Uptown House and Minton’s Playhouse that played a major role. These were often descents down into long tenement concrete basements, where the walls were dripping with sweat with musicians playing till the late hours of the morning long after their ‘house gigs’ had been over for the night.

A prominent figure accredited with the popularisation of Jazz came during the 1930’s came in the shape of Louis Armstrong. Armstrong’s presence in music was widely accepted across the US in circles of both Black and White Americans, but some of the Black communities likened Armstrong’s appearance to Uncle Tom, a character from Harriet Beecher-Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). The character of Uncle Tom was adapted and showcased in ‘Northern Minstrel’ shows and was shown as a subservient, appeased and passive person; all behaviours adopted to showcase their suggested race in society as inferior. It was Armstrong’s persistent wide open smiling that apparently reflected ‘minstrel’ performances, attracting criticism for reinforcing the stereotype, and maintaining the whitened social superiority complex – it was from fellow musician Dizzy Gillespie who saw this expression as continuing to adopt the actions of the ‘plantation worker’ which progressed in a consistent fashion to a time that this felt old-fashioned and suggested that his growth in development stayed the same, always blowing the horn but with the big open smiling and cracking of jokes. It was during the time of innovation of music in Jazz, the later 40’s,  where many were experimenting and developing new sounds. Dizzy’s view aside, it could be said that the presence of musicians like Louis Armstrong in the 20’s through to the 30’s had softened the White American seeing Black entertainment with increasingly frequent appearances – creating a stepping stone for those to adopt a stronger vocalisation on areas surrounding civil rights issues and equality.

Over in Kansas City – Lester Young arrives on the scene, pork-pie hat, wrap around sunglasses and saxophone in hand, he exhibited a relaxed straight face and calming presence, he had not only re framed the word Cool, but embodied it in image and sound. Young’s connection to his music went beyond purely technical, his was a voice without speech, one that welled up in his heart and was projected through his instrument, channelling emotion and feeling in the medium of ‘cool’. His expression conveyed a deep silence, one of suffering, a suffering widely experienced in throughout the US – abundant in his time, if he were still alive he would still be pulling the very same expression. Young’s sound, dress and language was something that had set him apart from the others, a language completely unique, and one we still often use – or variants that take influence from them. You would see Young’s saxophone played at a relaxed and heavily slanted style – held high, this shows us a level of control and originality, there was none that performed like this.
He also challenged the often masculine display of the Jazz musician with his more flamboyant, hip and soft persona – his hat was said to be customer designed, originating from a woman’s magazine in the Victorian age.

His early years found him gun-slinging at the underground Jam sessions in Kansas City where the great Count Basie Orchestra was born. Young was found along with the then unknown saxophonists that included Ben Webster and Herschel Evans in a famous battle with Coleman Hawkins who had passed through Kansas on tour with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. With the growing popularity of the group, the Count Basie Orchestra moved to New York City in 1936, it was said that any Jazz musicians worth their salt would require to cut their teeth full time in New York to prove themselves worthy. Young continued his passion for duelling at the Jam sessions in New York and in one notable story that circulated was an occasion where Hawkins left the bandstand during a jam session certain of his victory, Young begun to follow right behind him, playing his horn all the way to his car – refusing to concede.

The African tradition of ritualistic performance provide the fundamental principles of what cool (and hot) is, and these are often displaying either the cool of character to sweeten the hurt or using hot performance as a display of losing control – losing one’s cool to as a way to release pain. To say these influences were witnessed first hand in the lands of their ancestors were perhaps beyond actuality, but it is interesting that Lester Young is seen adopting these ritualistic qualities from a distance. His effortless demeanour of cool play helped to stem the insistent chanting of those by the bandstand, demanding players to ‘get hot’, which was often suggesting they lose their cool and play at a greater tempo and with heightened ferocity, it was to ‘blow their top’.

Young’s originality in his use of language not only demonstrated his cool and hip lingo, but he was creating a way of being, one that really came into its own in the late 1930s, below are just a few expressions

When a potentially bigoted or disliked character emerged onto the scene, Lester would say ‘I feel a draft’.

If something was to his liking he would say ‘I’ve got big eyes for that’ or ‘no eyes for that’ if he disapproved.

He called policeman ‘Bing and Bob’ after Bing and Bob Crosby, as this was how the undercover police would dress at the bandstand.

He would use the word ‘Poundcake’ to describe a beautiful woman.

A past lover was a ‘Wayback’

Young was also responsible for memorable nicknames, with notable ones including Billie Holiday with the name: Lady Day, Frank Trumbauer: Tram, Harry Edison: Sweets, Young’s own nickname ‘Pres or President’ was given to him by Billie Holiday, as president of the saxophone. With the term cool there is some speculation on the actual first use of cool, it was believed to be Lester who had used cool as a way of validating or accepting something in the way that we know it today.

The language of Jazz and its growth had it’s association with maintaining a cool headed and balanced approach to dealing with the white superiority complex, and this involved some suggestion in it’s wording and it’s meaning; the saxophone was referred to as an ‘Axe’, long before the Guitar reference (but most likely stemming from this), the Axe was to be used in a way that could cut down it’s oppressors and enemies, one that used the power of music to combat the racial stereotyping without the use of immediate wording. Another phrase we come across is to ‘blow your top’, this one appeared in fictional (and non fictional) literature of the time, it’s meaning was to lose your cool, you would often require restraint against blowing your top, whether it was during performance or in conversation, debate or in conflict – to keep a level head on you. ‘The Bomb’ was spoken in the presence of track of sheer appreciation, a bomb that would be detonated against it’s target.


One of the best visual observations of Lester Young is in the famous short – Jammin The Blues, his composure is calm but his expression displays a great solitude – during this he is seen performing nonchalantly with cigarette in hand during the majority of the performance. Young was a man who would suffer greatly in the presence or knowledge of any injustice, Jazz composer Gil Evans reflected on Lester; “Solitary people like Lester Young are apt to wear blinders. He concentrated on things from his past that he should have long since set aside as a good or bad essence.” So when most people would process and move on by letting go of their grudges but Lester would hold on to this for better or worse – although we would lament on this as a healthy approach. He was the beacon of existence through these approaches, an approach in that he was playing through all of these moments – sharing the highs and the lows.

In 1944, Lester was tracked down by an agent posing in a Zoot Suit (the Bing and Bob look) who followed him across the country and appearing at the bandstand sides and  drafted him into the Army. He was rejected for a musical role at the camp band for supposedly lacking a proper musical education and landed him in the military, which  begun a head on collision with the racial abuse suffered by Black Americans engaged in the war, a war in which many Black writers of the time dubbed the ‘Jim Crowed Army’, an army in which under the guidance of xenophobic lieutenants, now found them fighting against themselves. Segregation appeared within the military and racial slurs were often shouted at the participating soldiers to (de)motivate them. Young, shortly after joining the army was court martial-ed for possessing barbiturates, alcohol and marijuana, all to which he confessed to and his recurring addictions to them was then sent to a solitary encampment in South Georgia where he was beaten and abused. He was subjected to occasional breaks from his torment to play Saxophone amongst the white musicians, but even here they spoke racial slurs towards him.
Young had emerged from the encampment after one year and had written his commemoration to his time there in DB Blues (Detention Barrack Blues), which marked the beginnings of the ‘cool-school’ sound of Jazz, his incredibly expressive playing of the saxophone marked an incredible turn, a turn into his highly delicate composure of showcasing his reservation and balanced mind in the face of all this disappointment and mistreat, all built up from the resistance of not blowing his top in his time at the camp. Up until this point Young rarely performed as band leader, and was most likely found in trios and groups contributing in equal measure with the other participating musicians rather than a leading composition role.

The influence of language in Jazz was often pulled over the poets and novelists of the time.James Baldwin often took on this language as a Black American novelist and his most revered short – Sonny’s Blues (1957) we see this. Sonny Blues is told through the narrator, the brother of Sonny, and as to not give away the story, and I suggest you read it, I will keep it brief.
Sonny grew up in Harlem with a family struggling and certainly not without its problems – his yearning to become a Jazz musician, inspired greatly by Charlie Parker – “he’s one of the greatest Jazz musicians alive”, troubles his brother and he expresses concern of Sonny’s future he had purchased a drum set but his heart lay on the piano. Sonny’s character goes through the notions of the Jazz musicians at the time, but most importantly, he adopts the cool, silent and reserved characteristics that are liken to the musicians of Hip Harlem. Sonny is then shipped off the the Navy, later returning home to his friends and musicians at the Jazz club, accompanied by his brother. One particular sentence seems to draw influences from the originality that Young possessed which later spread throughout Harlem.

“He started across the avenue, towards the house. He has a slow, loping walk, something like the way Harlem hipsters walk, only he’s imposed on this his own half-beat. I had never really noticed it before.”

In Kerouac and the Beat Generation’s search for masculinity, its varying forms present in the modern American man, all with Jazz at the forefront of these works, Young appears in Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’ and the language of Jazz was often used throughout his writing, a passage on Lester reads

“Here were the children of the modern jazz night blowing their horns and instruments with belief; it was Lester started it all – his fame and his smoothness as lost as Maurice Chevalier in a stage-door poster – his drape, his drooping melancholy disposition in the sidewalk, his porkpie hat”.

Young’s coolness worked on multiple levels of consciousness, ones that begun influencing a generation of writers and artists who were taking inspiration from the non-conformists. They were experimenting with an agenda to remove the common association with literature, poetry and music in that they were produced only by the intellectual purists. It required a breaking down of the common preconceptions of the idealised personification of the ‘artist’, the intellectual virtuoso of specific race and demeanour, and black artists in Jazz would need to carve their own path and this required a skilful implementation, disassembling this through the cool and nonchalant demeanour that was rising, they were displaying not only the finest technical capabilities, but was intertwined with a touch of hoarseness to convey a certain message, it became antithetical to the often clean and clinical sounds and image found in the earlier Jazz-Age, this was something Young had often displayed with rigour.

His influence touches far and wide, not only was he influential on Black Americans, but also of White Americans and especially on young Charlie Parker in the glittering, but yet sinful Kansas City. His healthy obsession with ‘Pres’ would make his way with haste through the crowd and to the balcony to watch him perform. Bird’s early sound is an ode to Young’s sound, a sound which Parker brought forward to a new generation of artists that would glue together the foundations of Be-Bop.

The artistic increase of muting instruments were seen with the innovation of be-bop, although practices were used previously, begun a new form of portraying a certain sound to move away from hot performance, one that sat harmoniously with solemnity of the message of portraying the cool. The often subtle sound of drum-brushes and muted, slow, drawn out notation of trumpet and trombone was to reduce the sharpness of tonality in play, creating that often solemn, sad and beautiful sound that was developed along with the rising voices of jazz in the 1950s. The release on Prestige in 1951 ‘Modern Jazz Trumpets’ from the then emerging Modern Jazz musicians presented a well blended sound all of these elements with figures Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, Kenny Dorham; all incorporating their new sounds in Jazz, solidifying all the techniques adopted in the cool-era of Jazz and bringing them over to the formation of be-bop, nothing too ‘hot’, a presentation of well roundness. Another notable recording is from the Red Norvo’s Fabulous Jam Session, the coolness of play in Slam Slam Blues incorporates the swung blues rhythm played with soft brushes and Dizzy playing muted trumpet. These were all signature of play which become heavily adopted in the early 1950s. It was Miles Davis who spread  cool to the masses, by maintaining the use of the Harmon Muted trumpet throughout his career often seen performing close to the microphone with a heavily relaxed posture, one accompanied by his renowned arrogant characteristics- one being turning his back to the audience.

Young’s works in the early 1950’s begun to show signs of struggle, a struggle that stemmed from his continuous indulgent habits according to his critics. But, maybe we are too harsh in our criticism when it comes to the presentation of an artists work; we point out technical difficulties with a perhaps lack of understanding or missing the point of what the artist is trying to convey, the importance of these ups and downs – in which we rarely, if at all, showcase – we wear the masks of our higher self during our darkest hours. From 1956 till his death entailed some of his most inner-reflecting, artistic work in my opinion, one example being the Lester Young and Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison ‘Pres and Sweets’ title release in 1955, it was here I feel he had settled into himself to display and share his embodiment of cool at it’s most rawest, the incredible rasp and breathy air like sound on ‘That’s All’ would certainly aggravate the technical purists…
He begun to withdraw further from the forefront of Jazz in the early 1950’s – leaving a well carved a path for the more prominently outspoken artists:
Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis, and the rise of bebop – it wasn’t until the late 1950’s that Young had made his first direct vocal condemning of the prevalent racism at the time, but he had already done so through music and language throughout his life.

As language has changed over time it’s use has differed through generations, there are still some of Lester’s take on language used today – language is ripe for further discovery, and it is interesting how words develop new meanings over time. We use Cool as often in speech today as it was then and all with the same meaning.


Five Personal Favourites from Lester Young


King Cole, Lester Young and Red Callender – Body and Soul


Lester Young and His Band – New Lester Leaps In


Lester Young and the Kansas City Six – Four o’ Clock Drag


Lester Young Quartet – Too Marvelous for Words


Lester Young and Harry “Sweets” Edison – That’s All


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