The Lester Young Tree: Swing Era Tenor Saxophonists

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Lester Young remains one of the most influential saxophonists in the history of jazz. Among those whom he influenced are Flip Phillips and Don Byas during the Swing Era

The first school of saxophonists on whom Lester Young had a profound influence were saxophonists of the Swing Era (1935-1945).  At the height of jazz’s popularity, the Swing Era was a time of big bands, dances, and good times. Jazz was, for the moment, the popular music of the United States. Big Band giants such as Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman, and Glenn Miller dominated the early days of radio with hits such as “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “In the Mood,” and “American Patrol.” While Coleman Hawkins was still considered the “Father of the Tenor Saxophone,” a number of swing-era tenor players began basing their playing off of Lester Young’s distinctive style. Players such as Flip Phillips and Don Byas highlight a host of players who centered their style off of the distinctive sound of Lester Young.

Flip Phillips

Saxophonist Flip Phillips was one of the earliest Lester Young disciples during the Swing Era

One of Young’s early disciples in the 1940s was a young rising star of the Swing Era: Flip Phillips. Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1915, Phillips saw the beginnings of the Swing Era and the saxophone playing of both Hawkins and Young. A staple in Woody Herman’s band in the 1940s, Phillips had a unique perspective of having heard and learned from the three great Swing Era Tenors: Hawkins, Young and Ben Webster. In addition to performing with Herman’s Big Band, Phillips also found work playing in one of Herman’s small groups, the Woodchoppers, before joining Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic series, where he performed alongside all the big cats of the day: Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Illinois Jacquet, and many others.

Phillips’s style drew heavily on all three of the major Swing Era Tenor players. His tone had, in some respects, a dual personality.  On some recordings, such as a 1947 Carnegie Hall recording of “Perdido,” Phillips sounds much like Ben Webster, whose playing had a great deal of influence on certainjump-blues players – musicians such as Illinois Jacquet who performed a combination of up-tempo blues and boogie-woogie that laid the foundation for Rock ‘N’ Roll.  Repeated notes, a quasi-growling, rough tone, and some Hawkins-esque patterns litter Phillips’s solo, which receives thunderous applause.  Yet a look at some of Phillips’s other works clearly shows a strong Lester Young influence.

On Phillips’s last recording before he died, Swing Is the Thing! (Verve, 1999), Phillips played with the sweet tone of Young on a beautiful duet with Christian McBride over the Duke Ellington standard “In a Mellow Tone.”

What To Listen For

One of Lester Young’s greatest gifts to the jazz repertoire is the way that he played ballads. Young served as Charlie Parker’s inspiration on ballads, so it is no surprise that a number of great players invoke Young’s delicate and sweet persona on ballads. In this 1970 recording of “Sweet and Lovely” by the Flip Phillips Quartet, pay close attention to Phillips’ tone. Notice also the bends and inflections Phillips uses to color the piece. While much of the vocabulary is post-swing era, and Phillips makes much more use of patterns than Young ever did, note the classic Young sound: timely vibrato, inflections, deviations from the intended pitch, and bends.



Don Byas

Tenor Saxophonist Don Byas was one of the many "transition players" who helped move jazz out of the Swing Era into Bebop.

Don Byas is often considered a transitional player: someone who helped transition jazz from one era to the next.  Born in Muskogee, Oklahoma in 1912, Don Byas began his professional career in 1933, when he began playing for Bert Johnson’s Sharps and Flats.  He later joined the Lionel Hampton Orchestra at the Paradise Club in 1935 before moving to New York in 1937.

It is in New York that Byas’s career began to mirror Young’s. In March of 1939, Byas joined Andy Kirk’s Twelve Clouds of Joy, which had also hired Young between his stints with Count Basie’s Orchestra. In 1940, Byas recorded “Practice Makes Perfect” with Billie Holiday and was hired by the Count Basie Orchestra in 1941 to replace Young.  Ironically, Byas left the Basie band in late 1943 to pursue a career in smaller ensembles, and would be replaced by none other than the Pres, Lester Young himself.

The most obvious difference between Young and Byas is their vocabulary.  Byas was one of the more unheralded pioneers of bebop and spent many nights jamming with Charlie Christian, Thelonious Monk, and Kenny Clarke at Milton’s Playhouse in 1941.

In 1946, Byas toured Europe with the Don Redman Big Band and stayed in Europe for much of the rest of his life, living in Barcelona, where he regularly performed at the Copacabana Club and spent additional time in Paris and Amsterdam. Byas briefly returned to the States for a performance at the 1970 Newport Jazz Festival, but returned to Amsterdam, where he died of lung cancer in 1972 at the age of fifty-nine.

What to Listen For

In this 1940 Billie Holiday recording of “Practice Makes Perfect,” pay close attention to the beginning of Byas’s solo. Though his tone is somewhat more centered and full than Young’s tone, note the motivic development in the first couple of bars and the large scoop into Byas’s first note. Byas makes excellent use of Young-esque inflections and bends for most of the rest of the solo before foreshadowing the bebop idiom with his chromaticism at the end of the solo.


          February 6, 2016