Book excerpts that chronicle famous encounters among twentieth-century cultural icons
The Lester Young/Coleman Hawkins Kansas City battle…
The Life and Times of Lester “Pres” Young
Douglas Henry Daniels
(Lester) Young earned recognition for being not only a stylist but a saxophone “freak” – not a pejorative term at all but rather a comment on his unparalleled virtuosity. He “could make a note anywhere” on his instrument. Certain notes were usually produced by depressing specific keys or combinations of keys on the saxophone (or valves on the trumpet and cornet), but “freaks” found ways to defy convention and orthodoxy by means of “false fingerings” and adjustments of the mouth and lips, or embouchure. The trombonist-guitarist Eddie Durham explained that “Coleman Hawkins and Chu Berry and those guys, they fingered it correctly with what they were doing. Lester and those guys (e.g. Herschel Evans) didn’t.” Furthermore, Young and Evans “could do anything they wanted to do with a horn, anywhere.”
It is against this background, then, that we should reinterpret accounts of the most famous saxophone cutting contest in the history of jazz. Legend has it that Young proved his worth in competition with Coleman Hawkins, bandleader Fletcher Henderson’s biggest star, at the Cherry Blossom at 1822 Vine Street in Kansas City, Missouri. Mary Lou Williams, the pianist and arranger with Andy Kirk’s band, was one of the first to tell the story of the local tenor men – Dick Wilson, Herschel Evans, Herman Walder, Ben Webster, and Young – triumphing over Coleman Hawkins, who lingered so long trying to get the best of the Kansas City stalwarts that he blew the engine on his new Cadillac while racing to the next Henderson date in St. Louis. In Williams’s words, “Hawkins was king until he met those crazy Kansas City tenor men.” Gene Ramey, from Austin, Texas, maintained that Young “tore Hawkins so bad Seemed like the longer Pres played, the longer they had that head-cuttin’ session the better Pres go.” The drummer Jo Jones and other musicians also related the tale, but few claimed actually to have been there to witness the dethronement.
It is difficult to verify the date of the battle or, as we shall see, whether it even occurred the way Williams and Jones recalled it, because though it was often recited as fact, it was witnessed by only a few people who left records of their recollections. In 1934, only about four months after the alleged cutting contest, the Chicago Defender not only praised Young as “one of the most celebrated tenor sax players in the music world” but also noted that he was “rated by many to be the equal of the old master (Coleman Hawkins).” The article made no mention of the Kansas City battle.
Perhaps the much-discussed event occurred after a “Night Club Party” advertised in the Kansas City Call in December 1933, shortly before Prohibition officially ended. As a matter of course, newspapers would not have documented a jam session, but Hendersonia, the definitive survey of the band’s activities, did list a December 1933 date in Kansas City. Then, too, the St. Louis portion of the story is corroborated by ads in the St. Louis Argus announcing that Fletcher Henderson and His Roseland Orchestra would play a December 1933 date at the People’s Finance Ballroom.
Noteworthy among the problems of verifying the battle royal is the fact that no less a personage than Count Basie himself challenged the actual story, maintaining, “I really don’t remember that anybody thought it was such a big deal at the time.” Basie admitted to having been in the Cherry Blossom and having witnessed the jam session among the city’s tenor players, but he insisted, “I don’t remember it the way a lot of people seem to and in all honesty I must also say that some of the stories I have heard over the years about what happened that night and afterwards just don’t ring any bells for me.” He recalled that after repeatedly being asked to play, Hawkins “decided to get his horn” and went across the street to his hotel to get it. When he returned, several people commented on his unusual behavior, because as John Kirby stated, “I ain’t never seen that happen before” – that is, “Nobody had ever seen Hawk bring his horn somewhere to get in a jam session.”
In his autobiography, Basie related how Hawkins went on the bandstand “and he started calling for all of those hard keys, like E-flat and B-natural. That took care of quite a few local characters right away.” Basie did not recall Mary Lou Williams’s presence, but he conceded that he left early and she might have come later. (She did.) But the very fact that he went home to go to sleep, he emphasized, suggested that no real battle was taking place: “I don’t know anything about anybody challenging Hawkins in the Cherry Blossom that night,” he reiterated.
Basie acknowledged how subjective such undertakings could be when he mused, “Maybe that is what some of those guys up there had on their minds,” adding, “but the way I remember it, Hawk just went on up there and played around with them for a while, and then when he got warmed up, he started calling for them bad keys.” He concluded, “That’s the main thing I remember.” Williams’s version of the story is neater and more dramatic than Basie’s, and perhaps closer to what Kansas Citians wanted to believe. But as Basie pointed out, sometimes it was a matter of opinion as to who won a cutting contest.
There is another problem with the accepted version of the tale: Young also told it differently, without making any mention of a cutting contest. He explained that he and Herschel Evans and others were standing outside a Kansas City club one night, listening to the Henderson band: “I hadn’t any loot, so I stayed outside listening. Herschel was out there, too.” Coleman Hawkins had not shown up for the date, so Henderson approached the crowd of hangers-on and, according to Young’s account, challenged them, asking (in Young’s words, which were not necessarily Henderson’s own), “Don’t you have no tenor players here in Kansas City? Can’t none of you motherfuckers play?”
Since Evans could not read music, Young accepted the challenge at the urging of his friends. Young recalled how he had always heard “how great (Hawkins was) grabbed his saxophone, and played the motherfucker, and read the music, and read his clarinet part and everything” Then he hurried off to play his own gig at the Paseo Club, where a mere thirteen people made up the audience. Young nonetheless savored the memory of his triumph, observing, “I don’t think he (Hawkins) showed at all.”
By Young’s account, his success that night was highly symbolic, given that Hawkins was not even present. After all, with no rehearsal, he sat in the great saxophonist’s chair and played his part, reading the music on sight “and everything.” The basic point of the Williams and Young versions is the same: the new stylist with a local following defeated or matched the champion tenor player from the premier New York City jazz orchestra. Williams’s retelling of Young’s triumph sought to legitimize a new tenor stylist; the detail about Hawkins’ ruining his new car was very likely an embellishment designed to enhance the taste of victory by stripping the loser of a prized possession.
Mary Lou Williams’s account served to validate not only Young himself but also what would become known as the Kansas City style or school. It made the tenor saxophonist’s subsequent attainment of the Hawkins chair in Henderson’s band more meaningful, since this particular jam session was said to have convinced the orchestra leader that he needed to hire Kansas City men such as Young. However, the reputation that Young had earned with King Oliver and his sidemen may have played just as great a role in Henderson’s recruitment of him as the famous story of Young’s defeating Hawkins. King Oliver, Snake Whyte, trumpet player Herman “Red” Elkins, and others spread word of Young’s impressive abilities among fellow musicians. Some time later, for example, Elkins ran into Red Allen and asked him, after he had heard Young play, “What did you think of Lester?” “Oh, he was all right, but he wasn’t no Hawk,” Allen said. Elkins responded to the lukewarm statement by exclaiming, “I know he’s no Hawk. Prez will set Hawk down in a jam session and blow him clear out the room!”
Another interesting aspect of the story is the fact that because Young refused to play like Hawkins, Henderson’s reedmen snubbed him. The tale of the victory of the Kansas City style goes some way toward explaining the poor treatment Young would receive from Henderson’s men after he joined the band a few months later: they were generally uncooperative and probably jealous of the upstart. Because of his unique, un-Hawkins-like tone, Young was ostracized and resented by the New York musicians during the few months he was with the band, from spring to summer 1934.
The Life and Times of Lester “Pres” Young
Douglas Henry Daniels
Text published with the permission of Beacon Press.