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Smithsonian Accepts Artifacts From “The President” Lester Young

Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra To Present Three Decades of Young’s Music
February 20, 2020

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will accept a donation of four iconic artifacts related to the life and legacy of jazz legend Lester Willis Young (Aug. 27, 1909–March 15, 1959) during a concert by the museum’s big band orchestra-in-residence, the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra (SJMO) Feb. 22.

Lester Young Jr. will present the museum with his father’s three surviving instruments: a Conn-manufactured saxophone, a tenor saxophone made by Dolnet and a clarinet by H. Bettoney, as well as a signature porkpie hat that defined Young’s style and swagger. He was the template for popular cultural jazz aesthetics and helped set the standard for what was viewed as hip and cool.

Young is part of the top tier of the 20th century’s most respected saxophonists along with John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Stan Getz. His musicianship set the standard for modern jazz and his recording legacy continues to inspire generations of saxophonists influenced by his playing style. He recorded often with Billie Holiday and she nicknamed him “Prez” after President Franklin Roosevelt, whom she considered to be the “greatest man around.” In many jazz circles he is recognized as the “President of the Tenor Saxophone.”

“Young, a tenor saxophonist, fashioned a voice in jazz all his own, with his gentler style standing in contrast to the more aggressive format of his era,” said curator Theodore S. Gonzalves. “A touchstone figure in jazz history, these artifacts will provide us with new opportunities to engage our visitors in multiple stories about Young’s career, personal life and cultural impact.”

Charlie Young (no relation), SJMO artistic director, conductor and Howard University professor, will guide the ensemble through Young’s vast recorded history from his early days with the Count Basie Orchestra to his 1957 performance with Holiday on CBS’ The Sound of Jazz television broadcast. Among the repertoire will be “Oh Lady Be Good” from 1939 for the Basie Orchestra, “Lester Leaps In” from his own composition in 1939 and “Fine and Mellow” from 1957 with Holiday. The concert is sold out. 

The SJMO was founded in 1990 with an appropriation from the U.S. Congress in recognition of the importance of jazz in American culture and its status as a national treasure. A cornerstone of the Smithsonian’s commitment to jazz, the SJMO has performed for audiences at its museum home in Washington., across the United States, Canada, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Its concerts, by the full orchestra and smaller groups, include transcribed works, as well as new arrangements, commissioned works and programs that illuminate the contributions of small ensembles and jazz masters who contributed to the development of American jazz and defined the music’s character. More information about the SJMO is available at Smithsonianjazz.org.

Young’s instruments complement the museum’s extensive collection of 20th-century jazz artifacts associated with African American musicians in particular. Conn is one of the oldest instrument manufacturers in the U.S. and first manufactured saxophones in 1888 in Elkhart, Indiana. Dolnet is a small French company that produced a limited number of clarinets and saxophones between 1880 and 1945. The Bettoney metal clarinet was manufactured in Boston. 

Through incomparable collections, rigorous research and dynamic public outreach, the National Museum of American History explores the infinite richness and complexity of American history. The museum is home to the largest museum collection of jazz history—artifacts from Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Tito Puente and many other creative giants. The museum established Jazz Appreciation Month in 2001, which is now celebrated every April throughout the United States and in more than 30 countries. The museum is located on Constitution Avenue N.W., between 12th and 14th streets, and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free. For more information, visit http://americanhistory.si.edu. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000. On social media, the museum can be found at @americanhistory, and on Twitter and Instagram at @amhistorymuseum.

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