By Douglas Henry Daniels
Young was known to his contemporaries as "Pres"
(short for president of the tenor saxophone), and became
a jazz legend almost from his first solo on 78 in 1936.
From his small jazz group recordings with Billie Holiday
to his extraordinary years with the Basie band, young
helped create some of the most memorable moments of the
Swing Era. Douglas Henry Daniels, a professor of history
and Black Studies at the University of California, Santa
Barbara, takes a fresh look at the celebrated tenor saxophonist
in his new biography, Lester Leaps In (Beacon Press).
his own admission a neophyte biographer, Daniels writes
a book that is amply documented but nearly totally lacking
in narrative drive, and gets repeatedly bogged down in
his obsessive attempts to place young with a wider context
of African American culture. This continually shoves Young
into the background, submerging him in what sometimes
seems like extraneous detail, as the author indulges in
tendentious asides on everything from the old Black vaudeville
circuit to the history of marijuana. In the process, the
book's ostensible subject more often than not gets lost
in the shuffle.
readers will find Daniel's endless digressions to be tedious
and beside the point, while those looking for meaningful
insight into Young's musical genius or eccentric personality
will be disappointed. The author's scholarship is genuinely
imposing, but as far as telling the story of a fascinating
life goes, the book just doesn't swing. The president
of the tenor saxophone is still looking for his ideal