Presidente! The great jazz saxophone divide
When Lester Young brought his inimitable talent onto the national jazz scene late in the
1920s, no one paid much attention. He'd taken his talent from a family band -- in which he
played drums, violin and saxophone -- and brought it onto a wider national touring stage.
But the real significance of what he did, despite the years of struggle before his death
in 1959, was to take charge of the opposite bank on the great divide between the
deep-chord playing of the master, Coleman Hawkins, and establish a more linear and
ethereal sound that influenced bop and, if you have ears mature enough to hear, the
smoother jazz of the present day. Between those two poles, genius sparked.
"Bean" Hawkins and "Pres," by a pair of divergent paths, brought us to
where we now stand in jazz history.
"The President" -- a nom de musique conferred by Billie Holiday -- had a broad
exprience and chopped from it a form all his own. For example, though he took heavy
training with traditional New Orleans jazzer King Oliver, "Pres" had a way of
hewing to the melody and wringing variations out of it, quite apart from the slippery
descant style of New Orleans jazz.
His breathy and delicate tenor sax influenced a legion of past- and present-day musicians,
including Ben Webster, Joe Henderson, Gerry Mulligan and, I hazard, even the
light-as-a-feather alto work of Paul Desmond with Dave Brubeck.
And thereby we find the open door between the more traditional variations-upon-the-theme
of the chord-based Bean and the more linear approach of Pres, though both were well
schooled in the blues, the proper basis of all jazz.
There is no right or wrong here, and, if pressed, I'll argue for the necessary nature of
the give-and-take between those two tenor giants. Bean had taken a long sojourn in Europe,
where the people loved the jazz art and a black musician could live in more congenial
circumstances that he could find in his own country.
Pres, on the other hand, seemed to require the one-nighters, the slippery passage of each
But who else could have supported Holiday, the wonderfully classy "Lady Day,"
other than Pres? Who else could have coaxed the marvelous "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat"
from the flaming frontal lobes of Charles Mingus? Who else could have sat askew on the
bandstand, the tubing of his tenor contorted into some Picasso vision of a Mobius strip,
and played such sweet sounds from the side of his mouth?
Pres could, and did. And he, and Hawkins, had the sense to make of their different
approaches the give-and-take of Shakespearean proportions, for each was a foil of the
If you doubt it, give a listen to any of the old Holiday recordings that feature Pres and
take any recording you may find of Bean's. We owe them both more than applause for their