Whitney Balliett on Lester Young

I’m loving Whitney Balliett’s writing on musicians. He gets it better than most. “Very little about the tenor saxophonist Lester Young was unoriginal. He had protruding, heavy-lidded eyes, a square, slightly Oriental face, a tiny mustache, and a snaggletoothed smile. His walk was light and pigeon-toed, and his voice was soft. He was something of a dandy. He wore suits, knit ties, and collar pins. He wore ankle-length coats, and pork pie hats – on the back of his head when he was young, and pulled down low and evenly when he was older. He kept to himself often speaking only when spoken to. When he played, he held his saxophone in front of him at a forty-five-degree angle, like a canoeist about to plunge his paddle into the water. He was a gentle, kind man who never disparaged anyone. He spoke a coded language, about which the pianist Jimmy Rowles has said, “You had to break that code to understand him. It was like memorizing a dictionary, and I think it took me about three months.” Much of Young’s language has vanished, but here is a sampling: “Bing and Bob” were the police. A “hat” was a woman, and a “homburg” and a “Mexican hat” were types of women. An attractive young girl was a “poundcake.” A “gray boy” was a white man, and Young himself, who was light-skinned, was an “oxford gray.” “I’ve got bulging eyes” for this or that meant he approved of something, and “Catalina eyes” and “Watts eyes” expressed high admiration. “Left people” were the fingers of a pianist’s left hand. “I feel a draft” meant he sensed a bigot nearby. “Have another helping,” said to a colleague on the band-stand, meant “Take another chorus,” and “one long” or “two long” meant one chorus or two choruses. People “whispering on” or “buzzing on” him were talking behind his back. Getting his “little claps” meant being applauded. A “zoomer” was a sponger, and a “needle dancer” was a heroin addict. “To be bruised” was to fail. A “tribe” was a band, and a “molly trolley” was a rehearsal. “Can Madam burn?” meant “Can your wife cook?” He was an adept embellisher and a complete improviser. He could make songs like “Willow Weep for Me” and “The Man I Love” unrecognizable. He kept the original melodies in his head, but what came out was his dreams about them.

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