Lee Young: Jazz drummer and bandleader
Tuesday 19 August 2008
It's hard to decide quite whether the drummer Lee Young's place in jazz gained from the overwhelming importance of his brother Lester, or was cast in the shade by it. The two men worked together several times during Lester's short life, and in their own band Lester was the universal jazz muse while Lee took care of the more prosaic side of things. One thing not in doubt is that Lee Young was an outstanding accompanist, who eschewed drum solos and who fashioned his own career away from his brother.
Young's pianist father raised his family in the New Orleans area, and all of his children were taught to play musical instruments. In the 1920s, he formed a family band, the New Orleans Strutters, which played at minstrel shows and carnivals. The band also toured the South on the infamous Theater Owners' Booking Association (TOBA – also known as "Tough on Black Asses"). Before he was old enough to play, Lee stood on stage in a miniature tuxedo before the band as its "conductor".
By the time he was 10, he was the only one of the children to have received any kind of orthodox education. Despite the touring, he attended grammar school when the family regularly wintered in Minneapolis. This gave him confidence when, in later years, he co-led a band with Lester, who had a slender grip on the realities of life.
As a child Lee learnt to play trumpet, trombone, piano and soprano saxophone. He played the soprano when, in the mid 1920s, the family formed a band of seven saxophones made up of himself, his father, his stepmother, his sister, his brother and two cousins. But eventually Young settled on the drums as his main instrument and became the drummer in his father's band. Settling at last in Los Angeles in 1929, he became a singer at the Apex Club, continuing as a vocalist in the city until 1934, when he joined the band led by the expatriate New Orleanian trumpeter Mutt Carey.
Young moved to Buck Clayton's band in 1936, but times were hard in the music business. When he was on tour with Clayton, the young trumpeter Jimmy Maxwell found a band stranded in his home town of Tracy, California. "Aren't you Buck Clayton?" he asked the leader. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm here with my band, and the promoters ran off with all our money," he replied. They hadn't eaten for a couple of days, so Maxwell took Clayton, Young and the six others home with him and his mother gave them all dinner.
In 1937, Young worked and recorded with the pianist Fats Waller and in 1937 played in the band led by the newly emerging Nat King Cole. He worked as a musician in the Paramount and MGM film studios and then joined Lionel Hampton's band as a singer and drummer, staying for four months from September 1940. The next year saw him back with Cole and then he put together the house band, called the Esquires of Rhythm, at Billy Berg's Club Capri in Hollywood.
In 1941, Lester Young joined the band as co-leader and the group broadcast twice weekly, moving with Berg to his new club, the Trouville. But Lee wasn't there on the opening night. He had been approached by Duke Ellington's tenor sax player. He recalled:
Duke was opening at the Trianon Ballroom on the same night. Frog (Ben Webster) and Bear (Jimmy Blanton) told me that Duke's drummer, Sonny Greer, wasn't going to make it that night and they wanted me to play with the band. I told Billy Berg, "I'm going to play with Duke tonight. You have to get another drummer."
"What do you mean," he said. "You're the leader." "I don't care," I replied. "I may not ever get a chance again in my life to play with Duke, and I'm not going to give this up."
Luckily, when I came back the next night, I still had a job.
At the Trouville, the Youngs' band accompanied Billie Holiday. Lee Young worked in Los Angeles with characters as diverse as Bunk Johnson and Charlie Mingus, and recorded with Dinah Washington, Ivie Anderson and Mel Powell. He recorded with Jazz at the Philharmonic in 1944 and 1946 and worked for Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton again in 1947.
A brief period with Oscar Peterson saw him fall foul, in a concert, of the merciless practical joking that went on within the pianist's trio.
We're getting ready to play and I can't find my snare drum. They had taken it out of my trapcase and hidden it from me. I was really up a tree because I couldn't imagine how you could leave your snare drum out of your trap case. They opened up with "Air Mail Special" just as fast as you could play it, and I had no snare drum. All of a sudden on stage, here comes a waiter with a tray with my snare drum on it!
From June 1953 to March 1962, Young played in the Nat King Cole Trio. In 1964, he went into record production, being associated over the years with the record labels Vee-Jay, United Artists, ABC, Dunhill Records and Motown Records.
The drummer had two particular distinctions in regard to Los Angeles. He was the first black musician to work in a major studio and, as Norman Granz's tennis partner in the late Thirties, he was the person who first introduced the great entrepreneur to jazz.
Lee Young appeared in three films: the Red Skelton comedy I Dood It (1943), St Louis Blues (1958) and Feather on Jazz (1967).
Leonidas Raymond "Lee" Young, drummer, vocalist and bandleader: born New Orleans, Louisiana 7 March 1917; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Los Angeles 31 July 2008.
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