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Being Prez

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Named as One of The Observer Music Monthly's Best Books for 2007

Lester Young (1909-1959) was one of the great jazz masters, whose tenor saxophone playing brought new levels of expressiveness and subtlety to the jazz language. Many of his recordings - with Billie Holiday, as a member of Count Basie’s band, and under his own name - are numbered among the finest examples of the art. A complicated, vulnerable, gentle man, Lester (dubbed ’The President’, by Billie Holiday, later shortened to ‘Prez‘) was brought up in his father’s travelling carnival band. His early career was spent in the nightclubs and dancehalls of Kansas City and the South-West and he made his recording debut at the peak of the Swing Era. At the height of his powers he was drafted into the US Army, where racism and his own unworldliness landed him in a military prison. Thereafter, he became withdrawn and suspicious, and, as his music grew darker, seemed to lose the will to live.

The book follows Lester Young through his life in a rapidly changing world, showing how the music of this exceptionally sensitive man was affected by his experiences. The author, a musician himself, examines many of Lester’s classic recordings in illuminating but non-technical detail.

Published: Jul 1, 2007


Section Chapter Authors
Preface Dave Gelly
‘I just loved that music’ Dave Gelly
The territory Dave Gelly
‘Well, okay. So now we’ll find out what happens’ Dave Gelly
‘The hippest thing I ever heard’ Dave Gelly
Jumpin’ at the woodside Dave Gelly
Just jivin’ around Dave Gelly
Jammin’ the blues Dave Gelly
DB blues Dave Gelly
Jumpin’ at Mesner’s Dave Gelly
‘Von Hangman is here’ Dave Gelly
Prez returns Dave Gelly
‘Let’s review the books’ Dave Gelly
‘Ivey-Divey!’ Dave Gelly
Notes Dave Gelly
Select Discography
Select Discography Dave Gelly
Index Dave Gelly

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‘What a glorious book! I expected from Dave Gelly informed and perceptive commentary on Lester Young’s music. What came as a rich bonus was the warm light Dave has shone through the veil of obscurantism behind which the jazz genius chose to live his life. How come? By widening the focus to take in detail of the fascinating jazz world that Lester inhabited, all described with a lightness of touch that leads to many smiles – and a few lumps in the throat. By the end of a biography that is surely definitive in the true sense, I felt the glow experienced after viewing a sensitive and beautifully-constructed documentary. Then I went straight to my record shelves to listen again, with ears eager and refreshed, to all the lovely music.’
Humphrey Lyttelton

‘This exemplary and concise study is illuminated by the author's straight-ahead prose. While fully aware of the musical and biographical details, Gelly wears his knowledge lightly in a way that will appeal to general readers as well as specialists.’
Brian Priestley, author of Chasin' The Bird and co-author of The Rough Guide to Jazz

‘An outstanding book, covering the life and music of a truly unique musician, by one of the most perceptive and literate jazz writers. Eminently readable from the first page to the last, Being Prez is an essential addition to the jazz library.’
Alun Morgan, Jazz Journal International

‘An exemplary new study.’
Martin Gayford, The Daily Telegraph

‘Tells the story of the saxophonist who spanned minstrelsy and Miles Davis. Enlivened by Young's camp humour, this labour of love will appeal to a wider readership.’
The Observer Music Monthly best books for 2007