Young was born in Woodville, Mississippi and grew up in a musical family. His father was a respected teacher, a brother Lee Young was a noted drummer, and several other relatives played music professionally. His family moved to New Orleans, Louisiana when Lester was an infant. His father taught him to play trumpet, violin, and drums in addition to the saxophone. He played in his family's band in both the vaudeville and carnival circuits. He left the family band in 1927 because he refused to tour in the US South, where the Jim Crow Laws were in effect.
By the early 1930s he had settled in Kansas City. He rose to prominence in the Count Basie band by playing in a relaxed style which contrasted sharply with the aggressive approach of Coleman Hawkins, the dominant tenor player of the day.
Young left the Basie band to replace Hawkins in Fletcher Henderson's band, but he received intense criticism and pressure to play like Hawkins. He soon left to play with the Andy Kirk band and he later returned to star with Basie. His recordings with the Basie band of the late 30's were revolutionary -- rather than being bound by the "time" of the band, his solos "floated" above it and defined the time his own way. A true improvisor, his solos on alternate takes often differed significantly from one to the next.
Prez was also a master of the clarinet, and there too, his style was entirely his own. His clarinet work from 1938-39 is documented on recordings with Basie, Billie Holiday, small groups both under his own leadership and that of Basie, and the obscure organist Glenn Hardman. The music is sublime. His clarinet was stolen in 1939, and he abandoned the instrument until about 1957, when Norman Granz gave him one and urged him to play it.
Since Jazz already had a "King of Swing" with Benny Goodman, a "Duke" Ellington, and a "Count" Basie, Lester Young was known as Prez (short for president as in "The President of the Tenor Saxophone"), a name given to him by Billie Holiday (though some legends allege he had been called "Prez" long before even meeting her). He returned the favor by dubbing her "Lady Day."
Young was viewed an eccentric by those he chose to exclude from his circle (i.e., those he did not trust). He did so by creating his own language that his friends would understand, but those he didn't trust would not. It is interesting to see which critics of his day "got it" and which didn't. Those on the outside viewed it as a rococo and often inscrutable personal slang, famously referring to a narcotics detective or policeman as a "Bob Crosby," a rehearsal as a "molly trolley," and an instrumentalist's keys or fingers as his "people." He dressed distinctively, especially in his trademark Porkpie Hat. When he played saxophone, he would sometimes hold the horn horizontally, like a flute. He is considered by many to be an early hipster, predating Slim Gaillard and Dizzy Gillespie.
Before World War II, Young toured with the Basie Band, and many view the time he spent with the band as the band's zenith. Clarinetist Frank Powers said (around 1960), "man, I haven't listened to Basie since Prez left." In 1944, he and Jo Jones were in Los Angeles with the Basie Band when they were inducted into the U.S. Army. Unlike many white musicians, who were placed in band outfits such as the ones led by Glen Miller and Artie Shaw, Young was put in the 'regular army' where he wasn't allowed to play his saxophone. Young was based in Ft. McClelland, Alabama when marijuana and alcohol were found among his possessions. The army also discovered that he was married to a white woman. Racist mistreatment followed and he was soon court-martialed. Young did not fight the charges and was convicted. He served one year in a detention barracks and was discharged in late 1945.
Since his discharge from the army, jazz historians claim that his playing power took a nosedive. In truth, the last 14 years of his life proved to be the most productive for Young. In addition, his playing began to have a profoundly emotional slant to it, and this period featured some of his greatest rendering of ballads. He joined Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic and made a number of recordings under him. He appeared in the Granz-produced short Jammin' the Blues as well as the CBS special The Sound of Jazz. But by the late 1950s, his lifestyle had finally taken its toll on him. He largely stopped eating, began drinking heavily, & was suffering from liver disease. He died shortly after arriving in New York from a tour of Europe. Coincidentally, his old friend Billie Holiday died 4 months later to the day after his passing. Charles Mingus composed an elegant elegy, "Goodbye Porkpie Hat", for Young only a few months after his death. Wayne Shorter, then of the Jazz Messengers composed a tribute, called "Lester Left Town."
Young's playing style influenced many other tenor saxophonists. Perhaps the most famous and successful of these are Stan Getz and Dexter Gordon, he also influenced many of the cool movement such as Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, and Gerry Mulligan. Sonny Stitt began to incorporate elements from Lester Young's approach when he made the transition to tenor saxophone. He also had a direct influence on young Charlie Parker (the two were contemporaries in Kansas City in the 30's), and thus the entire be-bop movement. Indeed, recordings of Prez on alto sound an awful lot like Bird!