Posted by: lesterlives | October 29, 2013

President of Beauty: The Life and Times of Lester Young



Trailer Click Below


“I was born in Woodville, Mississippi.” Lester Young was born August 27, 1909. His mother Lizetta left New Orleans and traveled up river to the family home in Woodville to have her first child.  This small Mississippi town is known for two wildly different Presidents:  Lester Willis Young and Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Lester never spoke much about being from Mississippi. His actions spoke louder when he left his father’s band in the 1920’s because he didn’t want to submit to traveling the toxic landscapes of the south.  When I look into the eyes of Lester and his mother I wonder if Lizetta’s people were enslaved at the Rosemont Plantation that was owned by the Davis family.

War too had its effect on both men. The confederate president’s citizenship was revoked while Lester was court-martialed, imprisoned and dismissed with a dishonorable discharge.  When Pres finally left the detention barracks he transformed the poison of his incarceration into beautiful swing – writing D.B. Blues.  Pres didn’t talk much about the Army but laid down the sweet and the bitter in his music.  Gene Ramey says. “Every night those guards would get drunk and come out there and have target practice on his head.”  Lester said it was “a nightmare, man, one mad nightmare.”

In 1979 Jefferson Davis’s citizenship was fully restored by the United States Senate.  If this can happen certainly I could petition to change  Lester’s Dishonorable Discharge  to an honorable.   I secured a pro bono lawyer to help. He agreed to take up the cudgel.  The lawyer informed me that  in order to proceed  I needed the family’s imprimatur.  A letter was written to Dr. Lester Young Jr.  A  few weeks later a response was sent to the law offices in Boston. The response was definitive.  Dr. Young had no interest in opening the case.  I was  disappointed,  a missed opportunity.  This was a wonderful  way to set the record straight about a most honorable man and bring to light transgressions of history. C’est la guerre.



Here is a beautiful poem from Jamie Reid’s book on Lester Young.

Seventy years back,  Lester Young was in the Army.  He was suckered by a zoot suited officer and forced to enlist else go to prison.  He was later arrested for having drugs.  These were the same drugs he told the draft board about months earlier, that he needed, to get through the late nights and constant travel.  This was the life of an itinerant jazz musician.  Lester  was court-martialed, given a dishonorable discharge, and made to forfeit all pay and allowances due or to become due.  He was confined to hard labor and sent to the detention barracks at Fort Gordon, Georgia.  This is how the government chose to use the genius of Lester Young.  I submit his Dishonorable discharge should be revoked.  Seven months after the war was over the Army realized there was no point in keeping Private 39729502 Young.  Norman Granz then sent Pres a  plane ticket back to LA. The long nightmare was over.

On June 25th, 2015, Jaime Reid suddenly passed away.  He was 74 years old. The above film poem was finished just a few month previous to his passing.  For all those interested in the life of Lester Young, check out Jamie’s book Prez: Homage to Lester Young. It is one of the most evocative volumes I’ve read about Lester.

Photo by Brian Nation

Photo by Brian Nation



In 2014 Lester Young will have been gone 55 years, yet this swinging star shines brightly in the film-in-progress. In the film, Sonny Rollins calls Lester “god”, and a god he was for many players who paid their dues at mid-Century. The four-minute trailer includes interviews with Sonny Rollins, Harry Belafonte, Wayne Shorter, B.B. King, Lee Konitz, Joe Lovano, George Wein, David Amram, Amiri Baraka, Junior Mance, and Gunther Schuller. Collecting these interviews has been an ongoing process for about two years. Here are some pictures from the two-year journey that resulted in this trailer.

B.B. King

Phil Schaap

Wayne Shorter

Sonny Rollins

As a longtime documentary veteran, my approach uses contemporary places combined with archival film, interviews and music to evoke our shared history. In President of Beauty: The Life and Times of Lester Young, the music and America’s troubled social history combine to evoke a sense of this much-misunderstood American genius.

Years ago I began this process when I heard Phil Schaap play François Postif’s interview with Pres on the radio. I immediately knew this would be my next film. I wrote Postif inquiring about the rights. He in turn put me in touch with Michel DeLorme and I secured the rights. This historic forty-five minute audio interview recorded five weeks before Lester passed creates the narrative arc of the President of Beauty.

The film is now at a point where I need to work in the cities where Lester was domiciled. Shooting will take place in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Mississippi, Minneapolis, Paris and Kansas City with many more interviews to come. Ornette Coleman, René Urteger, Dan Morgenstern, Lewis Porter, and Don Byron. Interviews with artists, animation that visualizes Lester in his Paris Hotel, archival performances, and contemporary footage of Lester, comprise the visuals.

Today much has been accomplished on little funding. Having only shot interviews, my signature, as well as Lester’s, is not yet on this film. I need to catch the dawn over the Mississippi River, dusk at 12th Street and Vine, the rain on the streets of Paris and the intimate atmosphere of listening to jazz. Lester lives in these shadows of our cultural memory. I need your help to preserve what is here now by bringing Lester Young into focus. I need to connect with the world’s Presophiles to help raise the funding to tell Lester’s story with film. Thank you for your time and consideration. If you have any question please email.



Hal's Flyer for Web_Lester

In order to raise funds for the film, we are having a silent auction on a Selmer Mark VI tenor sax. #209100 This is no ordinary saxophone. The horn is signed by Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter,  Branford Marsalis, (picture not shown) and Joe Lovano  who all have participated in the film. I will be interviewing Branford Marsalis in the coming months and will see if he wants to add his name. The perfectly playable horn was donated by a supporter and is valued from $3000-4000. I hope to raise significantly more. Anything above the value of the horn is tax-deductible.

Horn Sig


Billie Holiday’s birthday was on April 7th 1915. She was 44 years old.  This year marks a hundred years since she has passed. Just like one of her closest friends, Lester Young, she too died to young. To commemorate the relationship between these two iconic musicians and how they revolutionized jazz, we post three videos between march 15th  (Lester Young’s death day) and April 7. (Billie Holiday’s birthday)  If you like what you saw and want to help the film, check out our donation film page.  This film is being made by the generosity of Lester Lovers.  We need your help!


President's Day


From Fort Gordon to Ferguson


From this picture you would think life in the U.S. Army was a cakewalk for Lester Young. Playing his horn, Jo Jones smiling in the back, as Italians say, dolce far niente.   That is exactly what the Army would have wanted you to believe. The truth is quite the opposite.

Sixty-nine years ago today Lester Young was dishonorably discharged from the military. Early in 1945 he was court-martialed and sentenced to a year’s time at Fort Gordon, Georgia for possession of barbiturates and marijuana. A habit Lester was truthful about prior to his induction. Why did the military want a man with an acute drug and alcohol dependency?

We don’t know what degradations Lester suffered throughout his 10 months imprisonment. His own words state it bluntly, “A nightmare, man, one mad nightmare.” Bystanders report white guards who saw a picture of Lester’s wife, a white woman, tormented the prisoner. Writer Michael Steinman says, “he was a tall handsome light-skinned black man with an effeminate manner, high voice, funny way of speaking…I imagine those other inmates held him down, beat him, and raped him…” There is no documentary proof of this happening but many agree that Lester was a changed man when he got out of the Army.

Sixty-nine years after his release from the detention barracks, I wonder if this dishonorable discharge could be expunged from the record? Why did the Army not remand Lester until drug and alcohol issues where dealt with? Did Lester know his rights as a Conscientious objector? Any military lawyers out there think there is a case? One-thing writers agree on, Lester Young was an honorable man. Stan Getz’s wife Monica calls him, “the most sensitive and ethical man I ever met.” His music remains as a testament to truth, Beauty & Truth. Looking at America’s struggle against institutional racism today, it doesn’t seem like a very long ride from Fort Gordon, Alabama to Ferguson, Missouri. Lester’s mad nightmare like the death of Michael Brown stems from the same question Mychal Denzel Smith asks in his Nation article. “What is justice in a nation built on white supremacy and the destruction of black bodies? That’s the question we have yet to answer. It’s the question that shakes us up and makes our insides uncomfortable. It’s the question that causes great unrest.”

From Paris, during his last recorded interview in 1959, Lester wraps up his feelings on America by saying to Le Hot Jazz journalist François Postif. “They want everyone who’s a Negro to be an Uncle Tom, an Uncle Remus or an Uncle Sam, and I can’t make it. But it’s the same way all over. You just fight for your life. You dig? Until death do we part. You got it made.” A few months later Pres was gone. He was 49 years old. for WordPress


  1. love the Music man

  2. Too bad you draw a comparison between Lester Young and the proven criminal Michael Brown. Taints the project and is a turn off.

    • Martin,

      In my opinion what is purported to have happened to Lester in the detention barracks is directly related to what happened on the streets of Furguson to Michael Brown.Pres was considered a criminal in the army. He was court-martialed. Given a dishonorable discharge. He was locked up for breaking military law for having alcohol and drugs. The Army made Lester Young a criminal. He was court-martialed and given a dishonorable discharge. Lester dishonorable? It is a continuation of the same racial madness that has infected America for centuries. The circumstances were different but the underlying issues are the same.

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