Lester Willis Young was born on August 27, 1909 in Woodville, Mississippi and was a jazz tenor saxophonist and clarinetist. In addition, Young was also an accomplished trumpet and violin player, and could play the drums. Young came into prominence as a member of the Count Basie's orchestra and was known for his sophisticated harmonies, free-floating style, and funky riffs, which became an instant hit with his audiences. Young was born into a musical family, and grew up in the rich, and diverse, musical culture of New Orleans. His father, Willis Handy Young, taught his son to play the trumpet, violin, drums, and saxophone; his brother was a drummer, and many of his cousins and uncles were professional musicians in local bands.
Young got his start playing in his family's band, the Young Family Band, who worked the vaudeville and carnival circuits. He left the family band in 1927 at the age of 18 and traveled with other musicians before settling in Kansas City in 1933. This is where he rose to fame with the Count Basie orchestra. Young parted ways with the Count Basie orchestra to join the Fletcher Henderson orchestra, which he left for the Andy Kirk band before returning to Basie. Young recorded for Commodore Records, in sessions comprised of Buck Clayton, Dicky Wells, Freddie Green, Rodney Richardson, and Jo Jones. Young played clarinet as well as tenor in these sessions. These recording sessions became known as the 'Kansas City Sessions.' In 1939, Young's clarinet was stolen and he abandoned the instrument until 1957. His friend, Norman Granz gave him a clarinet and urged him to play once again, which he did. Young left the Basie band once and for all in 1940.
As the 1940s progressed, Young collaborated with other musicians of the time, including Billie Holiday and Nat King Cole. Young's musical career was put on hold in 1944 when he was drafted into the army during World War II; after his discharged in 1947 he joined the Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe, and began touring regularly over the next decade. During this period, Young's recordings came via Verve Records and Aladdin Records. 1951 marked a musical decline for Young as he began to drink more heavily. His substance abuse reduced his creativity and originality during his live performances, which fans began to notice. Young's health escalated into crisis, which culminated in his hospitalization for a 'nervous breakdown' in 1955.
Young emerged from treatment a year later and recorded two Granz-produced sessions featuring pianist Teddy Wilson; trumpet player Roy Eldridge; trombonist Vic Dickenson; bassist Gene Ramey; and drummer Jo Jones. Young followed up with a tour of Europe with Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Quartet. As the 1950s were drawing to a close, Young sat in on the Count Basie Orchestra's live performances from time to time. 1957 saw Young appear with Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge, and Gerry Mulligan in television special on CBS called “The Sound of Jazz.” Young performed Holiday's, “Lady Sings The Blues” and “Fine and Mellow.” However, Young's years of alcoholism had taken its tool on both his health and his playing abilities. He grew frail over the next two years and made his final studio recording and live performances in Paris in 1959 with drummer Kenny Clarke. Young He died on March 15, 1959 at the age of 49.