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Lester Leaps In
By Douglas Henry Daniels

Lester 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).

By 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.

Many 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 historian.

—Tom Moran

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