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Last month when I spoke with George Lewis he expressed hope that someone would soon write the history of Chicago jazz in the 50s. Whoever takes on that task, it got a little bit harder last Wednesday, when pianist John Young died at South Shore Hospital from multiple myeloma. He was 86.
Although he released only six albums under his own name during a career that spanned as many decades, he was a crucial presence on the city's bop scene. (Sadly, only his excellent 1959 album, Serenata, on Delmark, is currently in print.) He was a product of Du Sable High School, under the leadership of the legendary Captain Walter Dyett, and he got his first serious professional experience as a member of Andy Kirk's orchestra in the early 40s. By the decade's end he was back in town working with everyone from saxophonists Eddie Chamblee and Von Freeman to blues guitarist T-Bone Walker to singers Lorez Alexandria and Nancy Wilson. In the liner notes to his 1963 trio album, A Touch of Pepper (Argo), Jazz Showcase proprietor Joe Segal observed, "He is constantly sought for all types of live and recording dates; from preferred anonymity on rock 'n' roll gigs to 'elite' pleasing fashion and club dances."
Letting Segal's characteristic tweaking of rock slide for now, this touches on a key trait of so many Chicago jazz greats: To make a living they needed to be able to play in any context, and that range inevitably bled back into the work that mattered most to them. Young's own music was thoroughly within the bop tradition, fusing a deep feeling for the blues with a lyrical elegance and a genuinely effervescent touch, but it couldn’t help but be informed and strengthened by knowing how other styles functioned.
Here's hoping that his passing will prompt the reissue of some of his records, because he'll certainly live on through their contents.
Davy Graham, Midnight Man (Fledg’ling)
Comus, Song to Comus: The Complete Collection (Castle Music)
Drive-By Truckers, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark (New West)
Lone Ranger, On the Other Side of Dub (Heartbeat)
Kelis, Kaleidoscope (Virgin)