Listening to the History of Jazz: Tenor Sax Part 3 – “Sons of the President”

By Mark Montesano

Last month we listened to tenor players that were influenced by Coleman Hawkins, the first major soloist on the tenor. This month we’ll listen to three of the first major players influenced by Lester Young (often referred to as “The President” or “Pres”, pictured above), the second major soloist on tenor. In contrast with Hawkins, Young’s tone was light and airy and his phrasing laid-back and unpredictable.  The use of space was as important as the notes he played.  Listen to his version of “Somebody Loves Me” with Nat “King” Cole, piano and Buddy Rich, drums.

Young helped bring jazz from swing to bebop, influencing every instrument. You can hear that influence on these three tenors.

wardell_grayWardell Gray (Feb. 13, 1921-1955)

Born in Oklahoma City and moved to Detroit as a youngster and played in Earl Hines’ big band from 1943-46. Moved to L.A. where he began to record under his own name and become a part of the West Coast modern jazz scene. After stints with a number of groups, including Benny Goodman’s small group, he became disillusioned with the music business and began to use heroin. He was found murdered in the Las Vegas desert in 1955 at 34. His murder was never solved.

One of his most famous recordings was “Twisted”. His solo on this recording was given lyrics and recorded by Annie Ross and recorded by many others, including Joni Mitchell.

“Easy Swing”:

Gray in a tenor ‘battle’ with Dexter Gordon (Gordon is the first sax solo, Gray is the second).

dexter_gordon_1980Dexter Gordon (Feb. 27, 1923-1990)

Born in Los Angeles. He was the first major tenor player to combine Lester Young’s influence with bebop. He had a big influence on John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. In 1961 he signed a contract with Blue Note records, where he recorded some of his greatest albums. Gordon moved to Europe in 1962 (Paris and Amsterdam) for 14 years. After much success he moved back to the U.S. in 1976 and received a hero’s welcome. He also acted in a few films including the critically acclaimed, “Round Midnight”, where he played an expatriate jazz musician.

Early Gordon solo on Charlie Parker song, “Confirmation”:

One of his better albums on Blue Note (‘Go!’) from the early 60’s.

Stan Getz (Feb. 2, 1927-1991)

stan-getzBorn in Philadelphia and raised in a poor neighborhood in New York City. His use Lester Young’s approach created some of the most varied and beautiful music in jazz. His tone was referred to as “The Sound”. He began to play in Jack Teagarden’s band at 16 years of age.  From 1947-49 he was a part of Woody Herman’s “Second Herd”. In 1952 recorded an album with guitarist, Johnny Smith that became album of the year. He moved to and worked in Scandinavia until 1961. His recording of Bossa Nova songs with Astrud and Joao Gilberto marked his return. He later came back to more mainstreams straight ahead jazz until his death in 1991.

“Four Brothers” features Getz with Woody Herman’s band. His is the first solo along with others, all who were influenced by Lester Young.

Early Getz recording of “Moonlight in Vermont” from the early ‘50’s with Jimmy Raney on guitar was a big hit.

Getz cookin’ with Oscar Peterson’s group in 1956. He could swing with anyone.

Getz’s most popular recordings of Brazilian music where he carries the light tone and laid back rhythm into pop music.


Mark Montesano is a retired professor at Arizona State University. While at ASU, he developed a one-credit honors course called “Listening to the History of Jazz: The First 50 Years of Recorded Jazz (1917-1967)”. Montesano plays amateur woodwinds and percussion, and is currently the host of KMHD’s hard bop show “Hard Choices” on Saturdays from 11 am to 1 pm where he has fun sharing his favorite jazz from the 50’s and 60’s.