Arnett Cobb and Lester Young – live at Birdland – 1952 – Voice Of America – Gordon Skene Sound Collection –
Two giants of the saxophone this weekend; Arnett Cobb and Lester Young and their respective bands at a gig from Birdland, recorded by The Voice Of America for broadcast overseas in 1952.
Hosted by Jazz Critic Leonard Feather, this performance by Cobb comes during his re-emergence on the scene, after spending almost two years recovering from Spinal surgery.
Joining him on this broadcast, though not on the same bandstand, Lester Young and his band complete this memorable and historic broadcast, which was never aired in the U.S. as many Voice of America programs were at the time.
Originator of the “open prairie” tone and “southern preacher” style, Arnett Cobb continually turned down offers from many national bands including Jimmie Lunceford, Count Basie, and Lionel Hampton. However, with his mother’s approval, and Gladys Hampton’s offer to Elizabeth (Cobb’s wife), in 1942 Arnett took the lead saxophone chair in Hampton’s band, replacing Illinois Jacquet, who had gotten the position as Arnett’s substitute (from an original 1941 offer to Cobb). Jacquet had held his position with Hampton on the condition that he switch from alto to tenor and “play like Cobb.” With Cobb as the featured soloist, Hampton re-recorded his theme song, “Flying Home [No. 2],” and the excitement elicited by Cobb’s uninhibited, blasting style earned him the label “Wild Man of the Tenor Sax.” He was a major asset to the Hampton band for five years as co-writer, writer, reed-section arranger, lead saxophone, featured soloist, and talent scout. Gladys Hampton and Elizabeth Cobb helped manage the band, and Cobb’s mother did the tailoring.
Cobb was a prolific showman, arranger, and tenor saxophone technician. His saxophone technique and music style directly influenced Illinois Jacquet, Gene Ammons, Johnny Griffin, Red Prysock, Houston Person, Sonny Stitt, Stanley Turrentine, King Curtis, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and a generation of musicians in jazz, swing, R&B, soul, and funk music. Cobb received a Grammy nomination in 1979 for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance (Live at Sandy’s, Muse). Cobb died in Houston on March 24, 1989. He was survived by his daughter and grandson.
Lester Young, nicknamed “Pres” or “Prez”, was an American jazz tenor saxophonist and occasional clarinetist.
He came to prominence while a member of Count Basie’s orchestra, Young was one of the most influential players on his instrument. In contrast to many of his hard-driving peers, Young played with a relaxed, cool tone and used sophisticated harmonies, using what one critic called “a free-floating style, wheeling and diving like a gull, banking with low, funky riffs that pleased dancers and listeners alike”.
Known for his hip, introverted style, he invented or popularized much of the hipster jargon which came to be associated with the music.
On December 8, 1957, Young appeared with Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge, and Gerry Mulligan in the CBS television special The Sound of Jazz, performing Holiday’s tune “Fine and Mellow.” It was a reunion with Holiday, with whom he had lost contact over the years. She was also in physical decline, near the end of her career, yet they both gave moving performances. Young’s solo was brilliant, acclaimed by some observers as an unparalleled marvel of economy, phrasing and extraordinarily moving emotion; Nat Hentoff, one of the show’s producers, later commented, “Lester got up, and he played the purest blues I have ever heard…in the control room we were all crying.”
Young made his final studio recordings and live performances in Paris in March 1959 with drummer Kenny Clarke at the tail end of an abbreviated European tour during which he ate next to nothing and drank heavily. On a flight to New York City, he suffered from internal bleeding due to the effects of alcoholism and died in the early morning hours of March 15, 1959, only hours after arriving back in New York, at the age of 49.
According to jazz critic Leonard Feather, who rode with Holiday in a taxi to Young’s funeral, she said after the services, “I’ll be the next one to go.” Holiday died four months later on July 17, 1959 at age 44.
As a reminder, here’s that Birdland gig from 1952. Dig in and enjoy.