Lester Leaps In... To His 100th Birthday

David Amram By

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For Lester Young on his 100th birthday

I just went to a birthday celebration I will never forget.

Maybe some in America have forgotten Lester Young, known as Prez (i.e., the president of the tenor saxophone), but people all over the world are still moved every time they hear the classic recordings of this giant. Prez was someone who helped change the face of jazz, and inspire people who listened to cherish the moments in their lives when they heard him.

In spite of all the setbacks in his own life, everything he did celebrated beauty and lyricism.

He just had his 100th birthday Wednesday, August 27, and I was invited to a filming at the corner of 52nd Street and 6th Avenue where the plaque made for Prez and Billie Holiday was placed on the sidewalk a few years ago to honor them and all the other great musicians who graced us with their presence during the legendary heydays of 52nd street.

The plaque has inexplicably been removed, and was nowhere to be seen. But the memories were still there. As I drove into the city from our little farm, I could flash back to being a teenager and driving seven hours in my 1932 Plymouth from Washington, D.C. to NYC to come and hear all the thrilling new music being created every night on 52nd Street.

Now all the clubs are gone, and only old photos, a few films, and many great recordings remain. But I was there to celebrate Prez and his 100th birthday, and imagined that maybe he would show up in that great pork pie hat and tell us some of his endless stories of his latest adventures on that never-ending road he was on most of his life.

I walked with all my instruments over to the water fountain statue on the Northwest corner of 52nd and 6th where Henry Ferrini, who is making a documentary film about Lester, was waiting for me. As I was unpacking my instruments on the sidewalk, I was being eyed by people when they saw I was going to be filmed. When I spoke to them, and told them why I was there, they told me that they had never heard of Lester Young,

"Go home and check him out on the Internet," I said. "You'll be happy if you do. And if you get any of his recordings, you'll be surprised how often you listen to them."

The night before this event, Henry had called to invite me to come into the city and asked me if I could relate any stories about this most beloved and influential musical pioneer. I told Ferrini during the phone conversation about Lester wanting to have a string quartet piece (with optional French horn and rhythm section) composed for him, to make a recording with him playing, and that I was going to work on it with him and compose a piece where he could play. The drummer, Willie Jones, with whom I had played in 1955 when I first came to NYC and worked with Charles Mingus, was also a drummer for and friend of Prez. Willie was the one who suggested to Prez that I do the music, writing a piece where he could play freely, and since Prez knew of me as a jazz French hornist with Mingus, Oscar Pettiford and others, Prez suggested to Willie Jones that I add a French horn to the strings and play myself.

When I told Ferrini about Lester's interest in doing this, during this phone conversation the night before arriving in NYC, he told me he already knew about it.

"How could you possibly know that?," I asked him.

"Because I have a copy of the tape where Lester mentioned it, while he was being interviewed in Februay of '59 in Paris. He talked about it and said in the interview with Francois Postif that 'he has a man to write for strings, and a FRENCH HORN and rhythm.' I knew that if the person writing a string quartet was also adding a French horn, it must be Amram."

It blew my mind to find out that this had been documented 50 years ago in one of Lester's last interviews, given to Francois Postif, a French reporter. I never knew anyone else ever knew about it, since only five after the interview, March 15th, Prez would pass away.

Henry told me that he also had a printed copy of the same interview, which appeared in Lewis Porter's bio of Lester Young, and that when I came to the city to be filmed, he would show it to me. And the actual interview can be heard on YouTube (see below) in Prez's own voice offering his take on reading music, which Verve records issued and which I never knew about. It's all in Prez' salty words, in the "Last Interview" following this article.

Now, as I stood on the corner of 6th Ave and 52nd street, Henry took out a copy of Lewis Porter's excellent bio and showed me the printed words of Prez talking about this collaboration, which unfortunately never happened, because he left us too soon.

As I read it, I could hear his unmistakable soft voice and realized I was standing not far from where many of us stood during a long-gone time, hearing Prez play during the glory days of 52nd street over SIXTY years ago!

Now it was time to play something for Lester in the same place where all the jazz clubs had once stood side-by-side, creating a little village of musical delights like Bourbon Street in New Orleans, where you could walk and listen outside each club if you were too young to get in and buy a drink or couldn't afford to go in. And standing there on the sidewalk, you could hear all the groups and even meet the musicians and hang out with them when they took their breaks and went out on the same sidewalk. I was standing on now, as they relaxed after playing their set, to get some air, have a smoke and rap with passersby and other musicians.

I closed my eyes and played "Happy Birthday," "Amazing Grace," and some blues for Prez, as a thank you to honor this amazing musician.

Through the surrounding din of the trucks grinding their gears, car horns honking, subways rumbling and people rapping as they walked by, all of which served as a New York rush hour rhythm section and back up band, I had a moment where I felt something of Lester's presence out there in that spirit world as I was playing for him. Just like you sometimes feel Mozart looking over your shoulder on the rare occasions that you are doing his music justice.

I told Henry that the next hundred years would be even BETTER for Prez and for all of us. Now a whole new younger generation can bypass decades of bad taste and neglect by a music industry that is being replaced by access to the Internet where you can see and hear masters of all the sincere forms of music built to last, and relate the musical masters from Lester's place of birth in Mississippi and study how he incorporated all this into his life's journey in the work he created. And that discovering Lester was a gateway to seeing and hearing all the other artists he influenced and continues to influence.

It is really important that this film is being made. Ferrini is a unique filmmaker. He spent years creating the documentary Lowell Blues, the best, by far, ever made about Jack Kerouac, and one of my favorite films of all time, with a great score by Lee Konitz.

Henry Ferrini, who plays sax himself, did a beautiful documentary film about poet Charles Olson, which is also a gem. I am honored to be in the Lester Young tribute film. And I know it will be memorable, no matter how long it takes Henry to finish it and get it released.

I think as I approach the BIG 80 that part of my gig in life is to honor all those no longer here whom I was lucky enough to know.

This film will help to remind people how proud we should all be to have had someone like Prez to enrich our lives.



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