Listening, Party For Two: 'Shoe Shine Boy'

Lester Young


Lester Young. Photo Credit: Ronald Startup/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

My boss readily admits that she doesn't know a whole lot about jazz. But she lets me write all this nonsense on the Internet, so I'm not complaining. And at least she's willing to learn. So every Wednesday, she and I get together to listen to and Instant Message about a different great jazz song.

Today, as we celebrate the debut of A Blog Supreme, we pulled the spectacular studio debut of a man who would be 100 this year: Lester Young. (In light of our pseudonym Take Five feature, Pres' first recordings are especially appropriate — the leader of the date, Count Basie, had already signed with Decca, so he cut these small group sessions for Columbia/Vocalion under the name "Jones-Smith, Inc. of Kansas City.") We chose the master take of "Shoe Shine Boy."

Personnel: Carl "Tatti" Smith, trumpet; Lester Young, tenor sax; Count Basie, piano; Walter Page, bass; Jo Jones, drums. Chicago: Nov. 9, 1936

Boss Lady: A swinging tune that makes me dance in my chair.
You've got my number
me: Well, you know, these musicians played a night club in Kansas City for many years straight
And by night club I kind of mean ... dance floor under a bordello
So they knew how to get the masses moving
But these recordings: not done in Kansas City
Nov. 1936
Boss Lady: I can hear that from the hiss in the recording.
Boss Lady: The opening theme is so charming....there's a little trip, a little slip-up that makes it sound like a kid skipping down the street, or at least jumping up and clicking his heels every so often.
me: Well aren't you little miss poet today—
You mean that bouncing quality to it?
Boss Lady: Yes, and the little ornament in the piano that sounds almost like a mistake...
me: Sort of like approximating a bent note, right?
Boss Lady: Yes. But I don't think it was a mistake. It sounds to me like he wanted that effect
me: Basie knew how to play a piano
And that left hand just bounds, right?
Boss Lady: What I love about this is the rough and tumble sensibility
me: No kidding
And in fact, it was the very first recording of one of the players
I'll give you three guesses
Boss Lady: I'm supposed to be able to tell? ... umm. Give me a hint
me: Trick question — the guy making his studio debut recording is the guy who sounds the most awesome
Boss Lady: I'm going to assume it's not Count Basie on piano that's making a recording for the first time?
me: No, he'd been at it in KC for some time, and now he was taking his band on the road
He was moving across the country to New York with the whole big band, but for this recording in Chicago, he just brought a small combo along
He made sure to bring along one of his star saxophonists — fella named Lester Young
Boss Lady: The musicians all seem to have a knowing wink when they play their solos
me: What tells you that?
Boss Lady: It's like they're so good they're lackadaisical about it; so everything has a spirited ease to it.
I also enjoy the texture ... it's one soloist handing off to the other and everybody else is tripping along in the background.
me: Well, that rhythm section of Jo Jones and Walter Page (drums and bass respectively) make it so easy to float on
That was one of the greatest timekeeping units of all time — they swing like mad
And then there's that saxophone solo, :45 in
He just seems to float forward so fluidly, right?
Boss Lady: He also seems to be pushing them a bit, like he's ahead and out in front
No lack of confidence there
me: Nobody had ever done it quite like Lester Young before
He was so imitated that his nickname was Pres — and another musician was actually nicknamed Vice-Pres!
He helps himself to two whole choruses, right?
Boss Lady: I guess he's got his elbows out and everybody's getting out of his way
me: Well, he's also a team player
Hear him trading off with Basie and the trumpeter at the end
Boss Lady: Unlike some people around here
me: Hey, just because I play for my own team doesn't mean I'm not a team player

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