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The Lester Young Dictionary

When asked who the biggest legends in jazz are, oftentimes you’ll get told Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and so on. But one name that seems to fall to the wayside more often than it should is Lester Young. Mr. Young, often called The President of Jazz or just Prez, was a saxophone leader in the 1930s who was highly regarded as a big influence of many saxophone players to come after him.

Prez, circa 1944.

He is know for his musical acclaim, but Lester Young influenced the culture beyond his innovative saxophone playing. There are terms such as “cool” and “bread” that we use today that came about because of Lester Young. He was known in the Jazz world as a talented guy that was a little odd. He had a very distinct style, playing his horn at a 45-degree angle. While fedoras were worn by most musicians, Young was wearing a pork pie hat. He’d wear “loose-fitting yet very stylish clothes, double-breasted suits, pants extremely well-creased.” (Source). He also gave off an effeminate air, but his sexuality was never formally addressed. He used terms that no one had ever heard before and created nicknames for fellow musicians that always got a chuckle out of the one receiving the moniker.

While listening to an interview given by Dicky Wells where he described the many funny phrases of Prez, I was inspired to create a Lester Young Dictionary. I’ve garnered some examples from that interview and others I found online that others noticed, and together, we have a dictionary of terms used by the great Prez.

As I said above, he is the originator of so many terms we use today including...

  • "Cool" = Hip. Before Lester Young, cool was more often used as an insult instead of praise.

  • "Bread" = Money. Yes, Lester Young is said to have been the originator of calling money “bread.” We would have never gotten to today’s phrasing of “Let’s get this bread” without Lester Young.

  • "Crib" = Home base

  • "Dig" = Understand

Some lesser-known, made-up terms created by Lester Young include...

  • "Paddling along" = Coming at a casual pace

  • "Vooted" = Out of

  • Example: “I’m kind of vooted for bread.”

  • "Ivy Divy" = Someone who was full of themself. According to Dicky Wells, it means, “if you’re this and that, all talk, you’re an ivy divy cat.”

  • “I feel a draft coming in” or “miss the draft” = I feel an argument coming on, so I’m splitting.

  • "Skoodly doodlin'" = Walking quickly. Ex: Look at the guy skoodly doodlin’ down the street.

  • “Bells!” or “Ding dong!” = Something is wrong.

  • "Old homirinis" = Old mates from home.

  • "Johnny Deathbed" = someone with an illness

  • "Footy Rooty" = Coming quickly. Ex: The girl is coming footy rooty.

  • "Scozy Dozy" = Coming slowly. Ex: The girl is coming scozy dozy.

  • “Rini” or “eroony” - He would add this to the end of words, for some extra flair.

A huge shoutout to the article written by Ron Tabor for The Anarchist Library for turning me onto many more unique phrases from Prez including...

  • “Eyes for” or “bulging eyes,” = he liked something

  • “No eyes” = he disliked something.

  • "Gray boys" = White men.

  • "Bing and Bob" = The police.

  • "Little people" = The fingers of musicians.

  • "How are your feelings?" = Lester's way of greeting someone.

  • "Have another helping" = Play another chorus.

  • "Von Hangman is here" = Someone Young doesn’t like has arrived.

  • "Eyes for the gig, but how does the bread smell?" = I like the job but how much money are they offering?

You can’t talk about the unique vernacular of Lester Young without getting into the nicknames he had for musicians. Here are a few notable ones...

  • Count Basie: Fatarooni (when he was putting on weight) or Holy Main (basically, The Boss)

  • Dicky Wells: Mr. Bones (because of his trombone playing)

  • Most trombone players were called Mr. Bones

  • Many musicians were called “Lady” even the male ones.

  • Billie Holiday: Lady Day

  • Eddie Durham: Poundcake

  • Bennie Morton: Morton Bones

  • Paul Quinichette: Lady Q

  • Charles Thompson: Sir Charles

I hope you enjoyed reviewing my working dictionary of the great Lester Young. Tabor describes Young’s language best as “highly metaphorical and elliptical, a very personal variant of the already metaphorical and elliptical Black English” (Source). I’m sure there are plenty of other unique phrases out there that came from Prez. They live on in the memories of others. This isn’t the definitive and complete source for Lester Young's vernacular, but it’s a good starting point.

If you know of any special phrases or words created by Young that need a place in this dictionary, leave me a comment letting me know! I’d love to see this expanded. I hope you enjoyed learning some of the interesting phrases used by the legendary saxophonist Lester Young. Thank you for reading, and thank you to Prez for coining the phrase, “Let’s get this bread!”

A special thanks to the following sources that helped me put this dictionary together...

Written by Kristen Petronio


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