Lee Young Jumps In
Lester Young’s lesser known brother Lee was a drummer. He must have been a pretty good one, because one night—with an assist from his friends Ben Webster (“Frog”) and Jimmy Blanton (“Bear”)—Lee was asked to take Sonny Greer’s place in the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Here’s the way Lee told it:
Duke was opening at the Trianon Ballroom the same night we were opening at Billy Berg’s. So Frog and Bear called me and said, “Sonny Greer is not gonna make it tonight. You better come on and open with us.”
I told them it was my opening night, that my name was out front, Lee and Lester Young. I told Billy Berg, “I’m gonna go play with Duke tonight. You’ll have to get another drummer.”
“What do you mean? You’re the leader!”
“I don’t care. I may not ever get a chance again in my life to play with Duke, and I’m not gonna give this up.”
I had signed a contract with the man, but Billy Berg was very fond of me.
“You’ve got to be the craziest man in the world. How can you be the leader of the band and not make your opening?”
“There’s no need talking about it. I’m going to play with Duke tonight.”
Luckily, when I came back the next night I still had a job.
Excerpted from Bill Crow’s Jazz Anecdotes, with the author’s permission.