The Price of Genius: Lord Buckley & Lester Young

Dig Infinity: The Life and Art of Lord Buckley
by Oliver Trager (Welcome Rain, 2002)

Lester Leaps In: The Life and Times of Lester "Pres" Young
by Douglas Henry Daniels (Beacon Press, 2002)

Reviews by Joe Rosenberg
      "God has wrought many things out of oppression. He has endowed his creatures with the capacity to create, and from this capacity have flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and of joy that have allowed man to cope with his environment in many situations. Jazz speaks of life. The blues tell the stories of life's difficulties, and if you will think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music: Modern jazz has continued in this tradition, singing the songs of a more complicated urban existence. When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of earth, which flow through his instrument."

— Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
addressing the Berlin Jazz Festival, 1964

This quote from Mr. Daniels' moving biography of jazz icon Lester Young highlights not only the wellspring of the tenor saxophonist's genius but touches on the inspiration of the message of Richard Buckley, the jazz comedian, who at the end of a long career in show business used the jazz vernacular as a weapon for humour and insight.

Both these artists had many things in common: they were grossly underpaid and unappreciated in their lifetimes; both suffered from addictions; both were verbally inventive; and both were distinctive dressers. They shared an appreciation and need for female companionship within and outside of marriage. And they invented their own genres: Pres the "cool" jazz sound, Buckley the "hipsomantic" rendering of English language into jive.

Born in California, Buckley was a vaudevillian favorite of the Chicago mob, sharing the same bill as Red Skelton. He developed a routine using Amos and Andy-like voices behind members of the audience. He was a favorite of Ed Sullivan and entertained the troops with him during World War II.

Living a very hand-to-mouth existence, he began absorbing the argot of the African-American musicians he performed with and hung out with.

He used this "hipsomantic" language to tell the story on stage of Jonah and the whale, Jesus Christ ("the Nazz, a carpenter kitty") and Marc Anthony's funeral oration. He influenced many more famous comedians like Lenny Bruce, Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams.

Just as his career was gaining some momentum, he was arrested performing in a New York nightclub during an obvious shakedown, and died of a probable stroke soon afterwards in 1960. He smoked dope, drank heavily and experimented with LSD. He also recorded several cherished albums. The book comes with a CD of some of his routines.

Lester Young was born into a musical family in the Delta and lived in New Orleans before moving to the Midwest (Minnesota and Kansas City). He played reed instruments with family and territorial bands until the mid- and late 1930's, when he was the backbone of Count Basie's reed section. Rather than play with the force of his contemporary, Coleman Hawkins, Young—dubbed "the President" or "Pres"—had a cooler sound and attitude, affecting a pork pie hat and avante garde dress. He left Basie and fronted a number of small groups until he was inducted into the Army.

While in the segregated Army he continued his laid-back ways and relationship with marijuana, and was court martialed and imprisoned. Upon release, his critical accolades by the jazz press declined in favor of the new heroes of bop, and his health declined until his death in 1959 of mental and physical exhaustion.

The accounts of the lives of these two memorable men are excellently related by Messrs. Trager and Daniels. Both include numerous interviews with friends and admirers. While Buckley bought the Black-influenced language to hip whites,

Young virtually created a whole lexicon of phrases now common to all. He was very laid-back and laconic, often putting someone down with a few words and spending lots of time alone. He called almost any one he liked "Lady"—and of course gave his friend Billie Holiday her nickname, Lady Day. On the other hand, Buckley affected an English accent, called people he liked "Prince" and "Princesse," entertained a lot and had a whole coterie of camp followers.

Buckley's routines towards the end had an almost spiritual bent as he pointed out what Jesus and Gandhi tried to do for humanity and urged his audiences to go within. Young took a similar path with his music, distilling the African-American experience into slow blues and richly textured ballads.

Both were bothered by the commercialism of the business of entertainment and rebelled against the racism of the day. I think if the Lord and Pres had hung together they'd be tight. As Lord B said. "Hipsters, flipsters, knock me your lobes," to which Pres would say, "Esmotherin, heights." (I am deeply moved.)

Anyone who cares about music and the spoken word needs to read these books and lay his or her lobes onto their vinyls in order to answer the question, "Can madam burn?" (Can you cook?)

Yes, Lady—they both do!

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This story was published on September 4, 2002.