Jazz drummer broke racial barriers in 1940s

Times Staff Writer

Lee Young, a jazz drummer who served as Nat King Cole’s musical director for nearly a decade and broke barriers as the first African American hired for a staff position with a Hollywood studio orchestra, has died. He was 94.

Young, brother of the great tenor saxophonist Lester Young, died July 31 at his Los Angeles home of complications from colon cancer, according to his grandson, Wren T. Brown.

The multitalented Young, who played on scores of recordings, was also a successful bandleader and mentor of young talent, including alto saxophonist Art Pepper. Over the course of his career, Young played with a who’s who of jazz greats, including Fats Waller, Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Oscar Peterson, Count Basie, Ethel Waters and Billie Holiday.

While Young worked at MGM in the late 1930s, he taught Mickey Rooney how to play drums for the film “Strike Up the Band.”


In July 1944, Young was on the drums at Norman Granz’s historic first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert at Philharmonic Hall in downtown Los Angeles. The lively jam session was a fundraiser for the Mexican youths wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to San Quentin in the notorious Sleepy Lagoon case.

Cole was on the bill that day, as were saxophonist Benny Carter, pianist Teddy Wilson and guitarist Les Paul. JATP, as the sessions came to be known, became the template for a nationwide concert tour of top jazz stars, often including Young and his brother.

In 1953 Young started an association with Cole, serving as the great singer’s musical director and drummer until 1962.

When he left Cole, he produced records for a range of entertainers, including saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders and the Edwin Hawkins Singers. He also worked as an executive for several record labels, including Liberty, Vee-Jay and ABC/Dunhill.

Young was born March 7, 1914, in New Orleans, the youngest of three children in a musical family. His brother and sister, Irma, played the saxophone. Their father, Willis Handy Young, was a multifaceted musician who played trumpet, piano, violin, saxophone, bass and mellophone.

Willis Young started a band that played on a vaudeville circuit for African American performers. Lester, Irma and Lee would all eventually play in the band, which took the family around the country. They lived at various times in Minneapolis, Albuquerque and Phoenix. In Albuquerque, Ben Webster, then a budding saxophonist who would gain prominence as part of Ellington’s orchestra, joined the band for a time.

About 1930 the family settled in Los Angeles, where Willis Young developed a reputation as a superb musical teacher and the precocious Lee found some work -- while still in junior high school -- as a singer at the Apex Club on Central Avenue.

Through the 1930s, Lee Young played in a variety of bands, including those led by top-notch performers. He made his first recordings with Waller, the great pianist, when he was 23 and toured with Waters for a time in the late 1930s.

He formed his own band in the early 1940s, joined by his brother as co-leader in 1941. They became big around town, broadcasting two nights a week on KHJ-AM radio.

After the group disbanded in 1943, Lee Young continued to lead small groups when the city had a vibrant jazz scene. He also turned to movie studios for additional work. While those gigs were lucrative, the racism of the time made employment irregular.

In 1946 he was about to work with Stan Kenton’s otherwise all-white orchestra when he was given a multiyear contract as a staff musician at Columbia Pictures in Hollywood. He was the first African American to integrate a studio orchestra but found the work unchallenging and left after two years.

Young survived his brother by nearly half a century. Lester died March 15, 1959.

Young is survived by his wife of 55 years, Geraldine; daughter Rosalind; son Lee Jr.; sister Vivian; six grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

Services will be held at noon today at the Old North Church, Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills.