The early music education of Lester Young

Lester Young

Lester Young (USA, saxophone, 1909-59) was one of the jazz greats. A majestic soloist and revered virtuoso, his musical and stylistic influence extended well beyond the swing era. Young’s sound and light-touch formed an important part of Charlie Parker’s bebop sound and approach, and so all the music that flowed from that. In his teens Lester Young imitated Frankie Trumbauer and was, in turn, imitated by Charlie Parker who memorized his recorded solos.

Young was taught to play mainly by his father, Billy Young, a professional musician trained at the famous Tuskegee Institute, a school teacher, private music teacher, a bandleader, and even school principal. He forced Lester to learn music reading and not just to rely on playing by ear. Biographer Dave Gelly noted that Billy Young’s ‘commanding presence and teaching background, made a highly effective band director. He trained young players’ (2007, p. 5). As a child, Lester Young learnt drums, trumpet, violin, and later saxophone and performed in the Young Family band.

He was influenced by the saxophone sound of Frankie Trumbauer whose solos he transcribed. Lester Young began entry-level professional work at 16 touring with lesser-known ‘territory’ bands but continued his study, particularly of Trumbauer’s playing. Later he become one of the stars of the Count Basie band and an acclaimed jazz great in his own right.


Gelly, D. (2007). Being prez: The life and music of lester young. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Postif, F. (1959). Lester: Paris 1959. Jazz Review, 2(8), 7-12. Retrieved from
Russell, R. (1997). Jazz style in kansas city and the south west. New York: Da Capo Press.
Tirro, F. (1993). Jazz: A history (second edition ed.). NewYork: W.W. Norton & Co.

4 thoughts on “The early music education of Lester Young

  1. Christopher Carden says:

    Nice, short article. Concise and informative. I love Lester Young’s playing, and it’s nice to see that someone else may, as well. Respectfully, the famed African-American school in Alabama is spelled “Tuskegee” (pronounced “tus-KEE-gee”), not to be confused with Tuscaloosa, Alabama (tus-ka-LOO-sa). Both words have their origins in Native American languages of the Muskogee and Choctaw tribes, the former being the name of a Creek settlement and meaning “warriors,” the latter being the name of a Mississippian chief and meaning “black warrior.”,_Alabama

  2. Jim says:

    LESTER YOUNG could read music. But what happens when he’s improvising? Does music reading go out the window and is that where playing by ear takes over? Just curious about this as i’m only a jazz music listening novice. Thanks.

  3. Saul Richardson says:

    Hi Jim and thanks for your question. Yes, improvising and reading music are generally distinct skills. Jazz musicians, no doubt including Lester Young, can improvise around written music and using it as a starting point – e.g., playing off a lead sheet, off chord symbols, re-interpreting and “jazzing” the notated music. When jazz players read, they reproduce the notated music along a continuum of “accuracy”, depending on the context. Highly composed contemporary big band orchestration? Play just as written. Simplified lead sheet? Reinterpret (“jazz it”), improvise around what’s written but keep the essential melody and rhythm recognisable. Chord symbols only? Improvise. Hope this helps a bit. Happy New Year.

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