Monday, April 21, 2008

R.I.P.: John Young

John Young 1922-2008; Pianist Played with the Greats
by Howard Reich
Chicago Tribune, April 21, 2008

Chicago jazz pianist John Young never attained the global fame of Ramsey Lewis or Ahmad Jamal -- slightly younger musicians who also launched their keyboard careers in this city.

But Mr. Young achieved an impressive resume, collaborating with Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Williams, Dexter Gordon, Gene Ammons and practically everyone else who mattered in mid-20th Century jazz.

In a career that spanned more than six decades, Mr. Young in the 1940s crisscrossed the country with a vastly popular big band -- Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy -- and subsequently became a revered figure in Chicago jazz.

Mr. Young, 86, died Wednesday, April 16, of multiple myeloma at South Shore Hospital.

"I think Ahmad got a lot from listening to John," said Chicago saxophonist Eric Schneider, who often worked with Young. "John Young had a totally individual style," observed Joe Segal, founder of the Jazz Showcase. "He had a very sparkling style, very swinging."

Mr. Young's pianism amounted to an alluring mixture of several elements: He merged an earthy blues sensibility with a remarkably refined technique; he brought the hot dance rhythms of the swing era into the newer idiom of bebop.

"He was the man to get the band cooking," said Richard Wang, vice president of the non-profit Jazz Institute of Chicago and music professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Mr. Young attained his distinctive virtuosity and built a prosperous career despite a variety of obstacles. Born in Little Rock, Ark., as the youngest of eight siblings, he came to Chicago with his mother, who sought "a better life for herself and her family up north, where there were more opportunities," said Alan Young, the pianist's only child.

Mr. Young's mother supported the family working as a seamstress and running a butcher shop on the South Side.

At DuSable High School, Mr. Young studied under the great bandleader-instructor Capt. Walter Dyett and performed alongside such future stars as pianist Dorothy Donegan and comedian Redd Foxx.

When Mr. Young began touring with Andy Kirk's Clouds of Joy, he was struck by the breadth of the country's racism.

"I was introduced to white and colored drinking fountains and white and colored waiting rooms as we traveled throughout the South by train," Mr. Young said in Dempsey Travis' landmark book, "An Autobiography of Black Jazz." "It was the worst thing in the world because they would put us [blacks] in the front car of the train, right next to the coal car. There was no air conditioning and, if you opened the windows for air, the coal cinders would blow right in on you."

After a tenure in the Navy in the mid-1940s and a period living in Cleveland, Mr. Young moved back to Chicago in 1955 and became one of the most sought-after pianists in the city. "He worked with almost everyone I had at the Showcase," said Segal, who also produced some of Mr. Young's first albums. But Mr. Young's recorded work was more popular among connoisseurs.

Mr. Young, however, did not express disappointment in his career, his son said. Ebullient on stage, Mr. Young typically wore a dapper cap and often was billed as "Young John Young." He played frequently with Chicago tenor saxophone icon Von Freeman and masters of comparable stature. "He built up a real good reputation in Chicago.... I think he was happy," said his son. "One of his favorite phrases, which will be on his headstone, is 'Everything's mellow.'"

In addition to his son, Mr. Young is survived by his second wife, Jessie.

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