In Praise of Gerry Mulligan, Lester “Prez” Young and Melodic Jazz

“But, Can You Sing Me a Song”

By Roger Crane “Song Scout”

I discovered jazz thanks to a hip girlfriend named Jennie. She thought that I was “like way too square, man”  and, sometime, in the ‘50s, the pretty, zoftig Jennie took me to The Haig, (a small club with a big sign) to see this guy named Gerry Mulligan who, in my young ignorance, I assumed was some new rock & roll singer.

This tiny bastion of cool jazz was across from the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles and, as you jazz fans know, Mulligan was a masterful baritone player and, with his famous piano-less quartet, a major influence on West Coast jazz. Since that fateful long ago day (“thank you Jennie, wherever you are”) I have loved melodic jazz.

Gery Mulligan
Gery Mulligan

I cannot define “melodic” jazz. It is, I suppose, like jazz itself, recognizable when you hear it. Even Charlie Parker, amongst his harmonic complexity, propulsive rhythm and speed,  was, nonetheless, also a melodic player. The Great “Bird” did much more than simply run the chords.

But the saxophonist who exemplifies “melody” to me is Lester “Prez” Young. Geoff Dyer, in his wonderful 1996 book titled But Beautiful: a Book About Jazz described Prez’s tone as “like a stole wrapped around bare shoulders, weighing nothing.” (now that is “painting with words” especially if those shoulders belong to a lovely woman). Prez improvised of course, in fact magnificently, but he always honored the composer’s intent. He is famous for knowing the lyrics to the songs that he played. Whereas many jazz musicians search the standards for a phrase or melody they can elaborate, Prez let the song do most of the work. Upon responding to a young player’s pyrotechnic bop performance, he once said “Yeah, man . . . but can you sing me a song?”  Maybe that is the essence of melodic jazz, with the focus on the song, the music and not on dazzling technique.

Lester Young
Lester Young

Bop is certainly the most virtuosic improvisational music ever created. There is excitement in this music (but too often the kind that bludgeons the ears into submission). Prez could blow with the best and sprinkle a room with sixteenth notes (check out his super-fast interpolation of “Blue Lester”), but it never became “look-at-me” pyrotechnics. His swing possessed a floating feel and conveyed more soulful lyricism than other saxophonists of his era. He was better known for his more achingly beautiful and understated pieces, such as the many performances with Billie Holiday. For example, listen once again to “I Must Have That Man,” their 1937 collaboration. Prez’ obligato and solo and Billie’s mood work, hand in glove.

By the way there are so many ‘accepted truths” in jazz that just ain’t so. One convenient mythology suggests that the army destroyed Young and that he suffered an artistic collapse after his year-long nightmare during Word War II. There is, apparently, a controversy amongst various fans and writers about the quality of his post-war work. Well, he may have been a broken man, fighting his personal demons, but his articulation remained fluid and fluent. Certainly, his work changed but more in response to the rise of bop then to an artistic decline. As I see it (and hear it), right to the very end, he was capable of creating beautiful melodic jazz.


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