Lester Willis Young was a famous jazz saxophonist born in Woodville, Mississippi on August 27, 1909. He belonged to a musically accomplished family. His father was a teacher who taught Young to play the trumpet, violin, drums and the saxophone, and his brother was a drummer. The family relocated to Louisiana and then Minnesota when Lester was very young. The family had their own musical band known as the “Young Family Band” and Lester performed with them until the age of 18. He left the band when they were touring in the South, because of his deep dissatisfaction with the Jim Crow segregation laws in effect there. Young eventually settled in Kansas City in 1933, where he began performing with a number of small time bands. It was here that he met Count Basie, who was a prominent jazz composer and bandleader.
Young became a full time member of Basie’s orchestra and fit in well with their relaxed style of playing. He temporarily left the band to join Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra and then the Andy Kirk band, before rejoining Basie’s band. He was featured on several of their recordings such as “The Kansas City Sessions” and a number of recordings in which he played the clarinet which also featured the famous jazz singer Billie Holiday, who gave Young the nickname of “Pres” (which was short for President). Young stopped playing the clarinet in 1939, when his instrument was stolen and did not take it up again until 1957, when he was gifted one by the jazz producer Norman Granz who urged him to take it up again.
Lester Young left Basie’s band again in 1940 after he refused to play with them in a performance held on December 13, 1940 due to superstitious reasons. After leaving the band, he made a number of recordings with his own band which included his brother Lee Young as the drummer, and featured Billie Holiday and Nat King Cole. He rejoined Basie’s orchestra for 10 months in 1943 and was then drafted into the army during World War II. He was eventually Court martialed when he was found in possession of marijuana