Hip Lip

How Lester Young Invented Cool

Not content to invent a much-copied yet incomparable musical style, jazz saxophonist Lester Young indelibly shaped American speech, too, from cool to crib to homeboy.

04.12.15 10:45 AM ET

Who is the most influential musician in the history of jazz? Is it Louis Armstrong or Miles Davis? Billie Holiday or Duke Ellington? Benny Goodman or Thelonious Monk? John Coltrane or Charlie Parker?

Faced with such an extraordinary range of choices, I simply can’t make up my mind. So, forgive me, but I refuse to answer that question.

But let me ask a slightly different one: Which jazz artist had the greatest influence outside the world of jazz? Who exerted the biggest impact on the broader culture—not on other jazz musicians, but on everybody else?

Ah, that is a question I can answer. And my answer will probably surprise you, because the name is far less well known than any of those others listed above. In fact, the jazz artist who had the greatest influence on the broader society is virtually unknown among the general public.

If you go to the web to learn about saxophonist Lester Young, you will find that he is associated with the Kansas City style of jazz that flourished in the ’30s. He only achieved the tiniest dose of fame during his lifetime—in fact, Young wasn’t even the bandleader on many of his most important recordings. Music fans were more likely to recognize the name of his boss Count Basie or his frequent collaborator Billie Holiday. During his peak earning years in the ’50s, Young earned $500 or $750 during a good week. That was a sweet paycheck for a working stiff in the Eisenhower years, but hardly the income of a world-changing entertainer.

But Lester Young changed the world, and has never gotten the credit for it.

Let me start with the music. Here you need to look outside the jazz world to gauge Young’s importance. I almost never hear young jazz saxophonists drawing on his cool jazz style. But when I encounter a saxophone in almost any other setting, I can hear Young’s influence. I hear echoes of his smooth, beguiling sound on movie soundtracks, on pop recordings behind the singer’s vocal, on bossa nova albums, even in elevator music.

When Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Adams released a recording of his classical saxophone concerto last year, I was hardly surprised to hear hints of Young’s tenor sax sound in the music. Saxophone is not a standard instrument in a symphony orchestra, but when it does show up at the classical concert hall, the tone usually comes straight out of the Lester Young playbook. But you will never see his name mentioned in the program notes.

The term “crossover” didn’t exist in the jazz world back in Lester Young’s day, but in many ways he pioneered the concept. He created a style and aesthetic vision perfectly adapted for assimilation by other music genres. His relaxed phrasing, melodic gift, and lucent tone just seem to fit perfectly into every setting, whether it be the musical background to a TV commercial or the first dance at the wedding reception.

Yet Lester Young may have had even more influence on non-musical matters. No one back in the ’30s would have applied the terms “androgyny” or “metrosexual” to this big band saxophonist, but with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that Young was subverting sex roles at every turn. By referring to his male friends—or even casual acquaintances—as “lady,” he was undercutting the macho culture of jazz at the roots. Some people thought Lester Young was homosexual; others merely that he was an odd duck. (During his military stint, a psychiatrist diagnosed Young as “a constitutional psychopath.”) But everyone could see his stubborn refusal to take on the typical masculine stances of the day. Critic Nat Hentoff, who doubted that Young was gay, noted his “effeminate gain and hand gestures” and recalls that the saxophonist had “longer hair than that of any male jazz musician I had ever seen before.” Young’s fellow musicians in the Basie band sometimes referred to Young as “Miss Thing.”

I will leave it to others to debate Lester Young’s sexual orientation. Frankly, I don’t have much interest in his bedroom proclivities. But I can’t help but admire the courage he showed in blurring traditional boundaries of masculinity and femininity on the bandstand or out among the public. I don’t hesitate for a second in giving him credit as a key forerunner of David Bowie, Prince, and all the other late 20th century performers who took that same gender-bending formula and rode it to superstardom.

Last, but hardly least, we arrive at Lester Young’s influence on the English language. When I wrote a book on the history of “cool” a few years back, I tried to unlock the mystery of that word’s changing meaning. “Cool” had long been a negative term, signifying aloofness, emotional deadness, and sometimes even antisocial violence. Hemingway once wrote: “I’d like to cool you, you rummy fake.” I can assure you it wasn’t intended as a compliment. But somehow the term flip-flopped during the ’40s and ’50s. “Cool” emerged as the preferred adjective to describe a hip stylishness.

Who spurred this linguistic shift? According to my research, Lester Young was the catalyst. More than a dozen fellow musicians later attested that Young invented this usage. Even today, more than a half-century after Young’s death, this meaning of the word is embedded in everyday speech. Everywhere you go, you encounter “cool” as a positive affirmation, whether in casual conversation, text messages or marketing pitches.

Lester Young also invented a host of other unusual phrases. Some entered the common vernacular, for example his use of the term “bread” to refer to money or “crib” as a way of signifying one’s home base. He may have been the first to use the verb “dig” to describe a deeper degree of perception. Do you dig? But most of his colorful language never extended beyond his own personal orbit. No one today would refer to someone with an illness as “Johnny Deathbed,” but if you were talking to Lester in the ’50s, you might hear just that.

And what about hip-hop? Could Mr. Young have left his fingerprints on the modern day rapper? “Lester Young was calling Count Basie ‘homeboy’ 90 years ago,” Quincy Jones recently told an interviewer. “There were the jazz guys, and the hip-hop guys took it from them.” Kanye and Eminem probably couldn’t tell Lester Young from La Monte Young, but does it really matter? Any modern-day musician trying to impose a sassy personal vernacular on the King’s English is following in the footsteps of this stalwart of Kansas City jazz.

So let’s give Lester Young his due. He never made much bread—certainly as not as much as his homeboys—or lived in a cool crib. But he had more impact on American society any other jazz musician. Almost no one knows his name, but we are still dancing to his tune. You dig?