An Irishman's Diary

LIKE life-forms, words seem to be subject to the laws of natural selection

LIKE life-forms, words seem to be subject to the laws of natural selection. Some mutations thrive mysteriously and in time become Oxford English. Other seem like a good idea for a while, and then quickly become extinct.

Take the verb “to dig” in its mid-20th-century slang sense, meaning “to understand”. Whenever you hear a movie character asking “You dig?”, it immediately dates the film in question – to no later than the early 1970s – as surely as tree rings date a tree. After Watergate, or thereabouts, the term could no longer be used with a straight face. It was as dead as the dodo.

Contrast this with a word of similar vintage – “cool”, meaning variously “good”, “excellent”, “fashionable”, or “socially acceptable”. As the list suggests, it was a much more adaptable term, with layers of meaning, some of which served the purpose – always important for teenagers in particular – of subtly excluding others from a group. At any rate it has thrived to become part of everyday English. There are many young people who can survive for days on end without using any other adjective.

I mention these two words because the man who may have coined both, and who certainly popularised them, died 50 years ago this month. He was the jazz saxophonist Lester Young; and in fact he is the subject of two major anniversaries this year, for August marks the centenary of his birth, in in Mississippi.


The two milestones suggest another thing he left us, for which his surname was apt. Young did not invent what would, in a later variation, be known as the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle. But he was one of the early role models: the archetypal hard-living, glamorous-but-doomed musician who was not marked for old age.

Apart from some haunting late flourishes, he had burned out by his thirties; and after a precipitous decline, he died of alcoholism and malnutrition, among other things, at the age of 49. Mourners at the funeral included his close friend Billie Holiday, not given to healthy living herself, who told people she would be next. Sure enough, she died a few months later, aged 44.

Young did not just coin the odd word here and there. He invented a whole slang dialect through which to communicate – or not, when it suited – with those around him. The first use of the word “bread” to mean “money” is also credited to him – another example of a term that failed to survive after initial popularity. But much of his vocabulary was so obscure as to be meaningless to casual listeners. One of his pianists later claimed he had been playing with Young for weeks before he understood a word he said.

The private language may have been all a piece with his drinking and even with the dark glasses that, in photographs, he is seen wearing in an already-dark nightclub – something rock stars still feel the need to do to this day. In Young’s case at least, there was the excuse of a gentle, sensitive soul who lived for music and struggled to cope with everything else. Behind the shades, according to one acquaintance, were “the saddest eyes I ever saw”.

His eccentricities extended to often playing the saxophone at a weird angle, like a flute, though in this case there may have been a practical explanation: that it was a habit formed during a residency in a very cramped venue.

Yet this and most things he did were considered “cool” by admirers. In a music genre fond of bestowing aristocratic titles – “Duke” Ellington, “Count” Basie, and various kings, queens and first ladies – Young was given a more democratic nickname: “Prez”, short for “President”. This was apt, since the style with which he became synonymous involved the overthrow of the previously ruling aesthetic.

Before “cool”, the thing to be in jazz was “hot”. So Young didn’t just relaunch “cool” as an adjective. He turned it into a noun, and a movement that would include a whole generation of jazz musicians. “Prez invented cool,” said B.B. King, explaining some of Young’s style thus: “Rather than state a melody, he suggested it. He barely breathed into his horn, creating an intimacy that gave me the chills.” Although the word is still going strong more than 60 years on, the meaning of “cool” remains notoriously shifty, which must be part of its success. It constitutes the unwritten membership rules of a club where you can be blackballed by other members at a moment’s notice and never find out why. Parents in particular can find it hard to keep up with what exactly it involves.

But one critic has defined “cool”, in the noun form, as “the art of judicious restraint, [of] hitting the pool ball just hard enough to sink it”. In this respect, Lester Young’s life, used up in the service of music, was in some ways the very opposite of cool.

He sank the pool ball, all right, and sank himself in the process. His declining years were marked, necessarily, by a much more economical playing style. But his health was so bad that, on occasion, he struggled to make any sound at all. Even so, he seems to have continued the effort to the very end. According to his biographer, Young was mouthing notes on his death-bed, as if still performing.