What This Lester Young Solo Can Teach Us About Leading a Purposeful Life

One of the most beautiful moments in jazz history: Lester Young’s solo on “Fine and Mellow”.

His solo starts at 1:20 but I would recommend watching the whole performance for some context. Notice how invested Billie is in each note Lester plays!

This solo was aired on CBS’s “The Sound of Jazz” television show in 1957 and today is viewed as a gem. This single chorus of a 12 bar blues was “acclaimed by some observers as an unparalleled marvel of economy, phrasing, and extraordinarily moving emotion; Nat Hentoff, one of the show’s producers, later commented, “Lester got up, and he played the purest blues I have ever heard…in the control room we were all crying.” (From Jazz: A History of America’s Music by Alfred A. Knopf)

Over 60 years ago and people are still so touched by this performance!

For those who are unfamiliar Lester’s life and career, you may be a bit confused. What’s so special? He’s sounds real pretty and swings, but why are these 45 seconds so monumental? You might even be thinking that you’ve heard Lester play more virtuosically before. Let me add some background.

That very same year, Lester was admitted to a hospital and treated for malnutrition, alcoholism, and cirrhosis of the liver. The doctors told him that he didn’t have much longer to live. Lester died just over a year after the show aired at the tragically young age of 49.

Whether or not the doctor’s statement happened before or after this solo, I’m not sure, but Lester undoubtedly knew in some way that he was in poor condition and that his consumption was trashing his body. This solo, however, doesn’t show a “tragically past his prime” Lester Young. From the bold way he gets up to the mastery with which he packs so much meaning into so few notes, Lester is teeming with confidence here. He doesn’t try to play like he did in his 20’s; he stands tall, makes a beautiful statement with only the capabilities he had on that day, and fills the room with honesty and vulnerability.

In constant mental and physical pain, but plays so clearly here…

Undeniably, you will reach a peak in your life. Whether that is physical, financial, career-oriented, or even artistic, you will reach a peak that you will never again surpass. For most of us, there will be a lot of life left to live after that. In Lester Young’s case, the very first solos he ever recorded, the Basie sessions with “Lady, Be Good” and “Shoe Shine Boy” (1936) have gone down in history as not only his very best work but some of the best solos in the jazz canon. He had just turned 27 years old! This was not unknown to Lester. He was known to be a very sensitive man, perceptive but easily hurt. He left the Basie band in 1940, had a disastrous stint in the military, and proceeded to consume his way to premature death.

Wikipedia has a pretty ridiculous (and not so objective) account of his later music that unfortunately is pretty reflective of public and critic opinion of the time:

“From around 1951, Young’s level of playing declined more precipitously as his drinking increased. His playing showed reliance on a small number of clichéd phrases and reduced creativity and originality, despite his claims that he did not want to be a “repeater pencil” (Young coined this phrase to describe the act of repeating one’s own past ideas). Young’s playing and health went into a crisis, culminating in a November 1955 hospital admission following a nervous breakdown.”

Wikipedia – “Lester Young”

What are your highest ambitions? Then what? It seems like our whole lives we’ve been taught to work super hard towards our goals as if they are some sort of finish line. But what happens when you’ve done it? Raise the bar and repeat? I highly doubt that Lester Young’s highest aspirations were to record the most popular solo but fans and critics continually told him that “Lady, Be Good” was his solo to beat! I really believe that this ruined his life with 2 big subliminal messages:

  • That each time he picks up his horn he’s being judged against what he’s already done.
  • Anything less than that past peak is almost meaningless

We do this to ourselves on a daily basis. We say, “I had more friends in college”, “I made more money at my last job”, and “I’ll never make anything that good again”. The truth is, the achievement focused life is a recipe for perpetual dissatisfaction. It teaches us to wait to love who we are right now because you’ve either done better or are going to do more. It’s time to question what exactly we’re chasing and whether the chase is coming at the expense of the life that’s happening right now. There is only one true finish line in life and it’s likely not going to be the point where you had the most money, friends, or fame.

So if not achievement, what do we live for then? What will make us get up in the morning and maintain a sense of progress in our lives? For that we have to talk about the fine line between goals and purpose. Here’s an idea I first heard from Tony Robbins: Astronaut syndrome describes what happened to those who went to the moon, took a photo of Earth from space, and came back national heroes in their 30’s and then had another 40-60 years of life they didn’t know what to do with. Falling from one of mankind’s crowning achievements, many of these people also went on to lead very tough lives of depression, alcoholism, and addiction.

Now imagine if the astronauts’ life goals were not to reach the moon but to show humanity that unthinkable feats are in fact possible! Then all of a sudden walking on the moon is not the finish line but a single pillar of a purpose driven life that can encompass thousands of pillars that may not even be related to space. Of course, some pillars are foundational and others are small, but every pillar that supports your purpose is positive no matter how it compares to others.

To me, this solo on “Fine and Mellow” is just one of Lester’s final middle fingers to all the naysayers. He delicately screams that he is not finished here, he doesn’t need to live up to anything, and that his past heights don’t diminish the value of who he is today. Lofty goals are achievable only at your peak. On the contrary, a purposeful life continues long after your biggest achievements. There’s no bar to raise, only a cause to continually live for. Sometimes it’s best to stop the push for a moment, recognize where you are today, and sing the blues you feel right now.

“We are going to the moon that is not very far. Man has so much farther to go within himself.”

― Anaïs Nin

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