George, Abe And Lester: Presidents Day 2013

In the United States, this is Presidents Day. It falls between the birthdays of two of our greatest leaders, Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and George Washington (February 22). Many years ago, there was a movement in the Congress to consolidate the two observances into one holiday that would honor all US presidents. The effort never resulted in an official national holiday, but department stores and automobile dealerships liked the idea so much that they declared it a holiday and celebrate it by having huge sales to increase their profits and buy advertising that results in Sunday newspapers weighing five pounds. To read the confused history of Presidents Day, go here.

Among jazz blogs and websites, taking advantage of Presidents Day as a reason to mention Lester Young has become a cliché. Clichés get to be clichés because they strike a chord and are repeated so often that they become a part of the collective consciousness. When Billie Holiday declared that Lester Young was the president of the tenor saxophonists, she planted the seed of a cliché that I am happy to perpetuate.

Ladies and gentlemen—on Presidents Day we present Lester Young in one of his greatest recordings. This was 1943. Prez with Johnny Guarnieri, Slam Stewart and Sid Catlett.

Oscar Peterson liked Young’s final eight bars so much that he incorporated it whenever he played “Sometimes I’m Happy,” as in this long version.

Jack Brownlow, who played piano with Lester in the 1940s, wrote a lyric for Prez’s ending.Bruno in Bronxville

I can find a ray
On the rainiest day.
If I am with you,
The cloudy skies all turn to blue.
My disposition really changes when you’re near.
Every day’s a happy day with you, my dear.

(©Jack Brownlow)

Happy Presidents Day.

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  1. Charlton Price says

    I wore out two copies of this 78, beginning in 1944 (when about 16). Johnny Guarnieri’s piano is exquisite. Slam Stewart and Big Sid Catlett are, as ever, tasty. On this or a companion Keynote disc was a fast blues “Afternoon of a Basie-ite” that has forever blown me away, because of what each member of the quartet does. Prez is said to have hated “Afternoon of a Basie-ite,” or maybe he just hated the title. Both the 78s are on, or later were on a CD “The Complete Lester Young” (Jazz Heritage).

    Were these recordings made before or after his execrable time in the Army?

      • David says

        Buddy Tate recalled how the army got Young in a May, 1980, Cadence Magazine interview by Shirley Klett:

        “Lester kept getting these draft notices and he kept throwing them away. Well, one night we were playing this dance and there was this fellow hanging around the bandstand. Real nice fellow. And, we talked, and he was interested in the tour, and Lester really hit it off with him and so, every break, Lester was standing around talking to this guy. Well, came the last break of the evening, and this guy pulls out his wallet and shows Lester he’s an FBI agent! Seems they’d sent him around to check up on Lester for not showing up for the draft!…Prez said afterwards it was a near thing – he was getting along with the guy so well he was about to suggest they step out the back door for a joint when the guy pulled out his ID! So, anyway, Lester was gone in the morning.”

  2. says

    The King Pleasure version of Pres’s lovely solo uses the words “my sweetie went away,” which was the lyric of an old song that Pres quoted in that final phrase. I was listening to this record at Dave Lambert’s basement apartment on West 10th St in NYC with King, and I hummed that lyric as Pres played it. King said,”What was that?” “An old song,” I replied. And when King Pleasure made his version about a month later, there it was.

    I asked King where he got that name, and he said, “From about six months of hard thinkin’.”