Lee Young R.I.P.

NY TIMES - August 10, 2008 - By Douglas Martin
Lee Young Dies at 94; Jazz Man and Producer

Lee Young, who emerged from a family with musical roots deep in New 
Orleans jazz, drummed for greats like Ellington and Basie, became a 
pioneering black man in music’s executive suites — and survived his 
musician brother, Lester, by a half century — died on July 31 at his 
home in Los Angeles. He was 94.

The death was confirmed by his grandson Wren Brown.

In contrast to his brother, whose debilitating battle with alcohol and 
personal demons is almost as well known to jazz fans as his saxophone 
solos, Lee Young, a teetotaler, lived a long life of accomplishment in 
both performance and the music business.

His recollections, from touring in a carnival act as a child with 
Lester and their sister, Irma, in the 1920s; to playing drums and 
cutting his first records with Fats Waller in the 1930s; to helping 
forge a vibrant jazz scene in Los Angeles in the 1940s, were recorded 
by the oral history program of the University of California, Los 

His experiences included teaching Mickey Rooney to play drums for a 
movie and becoming the first black — and for several years the only 
one — to be a regular studio musician in Hollywood. He played drums 
and conducted for Nat King Cole.

Mr. Young played on literally thousands of records, said Phil Schaap, 
the jazz historian.

As a record producer, Mr. Young developed a reputation for knowing in 
advance what would sell, and discovered Steely Dan, the jazz fusion-
rock band.

Mr. Schaap called Mr. Young “a most significant figure in jazz who 
directly connected us to the music’s early glories: the birth of jazz 
in New Orleans, the jazz age, the swing era and bebop.” Mr. Schaap 
also said that Mr. Young, who led an integrated band when that was 
unusual, was “a hero in the fight for integration.”

Leonidas Raymond Young was born in New Orleans on March 7, 1914, to 
parents who were both musicians and teachers. His father had learned 
to play instruments including the violin, trombone and bass as he 
traveled the deep South at the time jazz was sprouting in New Orleans.

Mr. Young’s father was a stern taskmaster, drilling music into his 
children by putting notes on a blackboard before they even started 
school. He made them into a novelty dancing act for traveling 
carnivals until they learned to play instruments. Lee, the youngest, 
had visited more than 30 states by the time he was 8.

Lee was different from Lester as a youth. Lester would practice his 
saxophone for hours; Lee would rather sneak off to play ball. Lester 
begged off some of the vaudeville gigs, particularly longer stays in 
cities like Minneapolis and Phoenix.

The family finally settled in Los Angeles, where Lee and his sister 
entertained at the dance marathons that were the rage during the 
Depression. By this time, Lee was performing most often as a drummer, 
having switched from the trombone; Lester had decided to specialize in 
saxophone instead of drums.

Lee attended high schools in Los Angeles. He began playing with Mutt 
Carey, a trumpeter and bandleader who had gotten his start in New 
Orleans, and also toured withEthel Waters. He made his first records 
at 23 as Fats Waller’s drummer. He played with Lionel Hampton and 
others, and started his own orchestra, actually a smaller combo. His 
brother joined the band in 1941, and its stature grew exponentially. 
They toured for the U.S.O., broadcast with Billie Holiday and were a 
hit in New York.

LA Weekly said in 2004 that Mr. Young for years was the only black 
staff musician at a major studio. Mr. Schaap wrote that Mr. Young got 
his job by turning down a chance to be Stan Kenton’s drummer at a time 
when Kenton led the nation’s hottest band.

In 1953 Mr. Young became Nat King Cole’s drummer and conductor, Mr. 
Schaap said. From this pinnacle of the music world, he had new 
insights into the business side of music, and decided to join it. He 
produced for Vee-Jay, Motown and ABC/Dunhill Records.

Around 1937, Mr. Young met a teenager named Norman Granz on a tennis 
court and began playing against him regularly. Granz was enthralled 
when Mr. Young introduced him to jazz and went on to create Jazz at 
the Philharmonic, the all-star touring group that took the music out 
of smoky bars to jam in the concert halls; Mr. Young and his brother 
can be heard on some of the recorded jam sessions.

Lester Young died in 1959; Irma died in 1993. Lee Young is survived by 
his wife of 55 years, the former Louise Franklin Young; his daughter, 
Rosalind Brown of Los Angeles; his son, Lee Jr., of Los Angeles; his 
half-sister, Vivian Johnson of Louisiana; six grandchildren; and nine 

Mr. Young was interviewed for a book, “Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in 
Los Angeles” (1999) and said that when the music industry was 
segregated, white musicians were paid for seven nights of work, even 
though they were given one day off, while blacks had to work all seven 
days for their pay.

“I just loved to play so much, I went to different clubs and told the 
guys that if they wanted a night off, I would play in their place,” 
Mr. Young said. “So I got a chance to play all kinds of music, because 
I used to let these guys off.”

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