27 October 2011

Lester's ghost in Harlem, then a horn in Central Park

Ralph Wilson in Central Park
NEW YORK, N.Y.—Lester Young, “Prez,” the man, the legend and the artist who rose to prominence on the tenor saxophone in the 1930s with the Count Basie Orchestra was celebrated at a panel discussion featuring Ira Gitler, Dan Morgenstern , Chris Albertson, Dr. Lewis Porter, and Ethan Iverson hosted by Loren Schoenberg at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem Oct. 22.

Much of the talk and audience comments, a few first-hand experiences, focused on his influence and listening, often in rapture, to recorded clips. Young, typically relaxed and understated even when the band was ripping, embodied cool before Miles. Morgenstern, the white-haired director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers, bopped in rhythm with contagious bliss plastered across his face.

After a break, Sam Newsome on alto performed smartly but briefly but the my highlight was watching “Jammin’ the Blues," a dazzling 10-minute film short from 1944 featuring Young, lovely dancing, music and photography.

Like like many of his contemporaries, he died young, 49, and miserably, a malnourished alcoholic. Geoff Dyer, imagining Young late in life, wrote, “He waited for the phone to ring, expecting to hear someone break the news to him that he had died in his sleep,” in But Beautiful (1991).

Day later, under a fall blue sky, I heard another lyrical horn, Ralph Wilson, playing for change in Central Park. He softly explained how tough it was to get a steady gig in New York and how jazz was much more visible in Tokyo, where he hopes to visit his wife and new daughter with the beautiful eyes, maybe in January.

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