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Remembering Webster Young

From Jazz trumpet giant Webster Young died at the Veterans Administration Hospice in Vancouver, WA.
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Webster Young, whose distinctively warm and melancholy trumpet sound influenced generations of developing musicians, died at the Veterans Administration Hospice in Vancouver, WA, December 13, just 10 days after his 71st birthday. He had been hospitalized for treatment of a brain tumor.

Grechen Isenhard Young, his wife of 38 years, and their son, Dorian Young, were by his side as he peacefully slipped away.

Although he wasn’t nearly the household name he should have been, the staff at the VA all knew who Webster Young was, and felt proud to have him with them.  They treated him with the level of kindness and respect that he should have enjoyed throughout his life.  Even the most uninitiated jazz listener couldn’t help but recognize at least a few of the jazz luminaries who called to wish him a speedy recovery during his time at the VA.

Webster English Young – nicknamed “Little Diz” and later dubbed “Web City” by the great alto saxophonist Jackie McLean – was born in Columbia, S.C.  But it was Washington, D.C. – where he was raised and spent most of his life – that he called his home.  At a very early age, he took up the trumpet and at one point even convinced Louis Armstrong to give him a quick lesson while Pops was in town for a date at the Howard Theatre.

Webster’s speaking voice was soft and gravelly—not a singer’s voice by most standards—but he occasionally put his horn down and picked up the mike.

The one time I heard him sing on stage stands out.  His vocal treatment of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” was every bit as soulful and fluent as his trumpet choruses, which were amazing.  The only recording of him singing that I am aware of is “What’s New” from a rare three-LP live set of recordings made in 1961: Webster Young Plays the Miles Davis Songbook .  Shirley Horn was in the audience that night, and Young recalled that he “just felt like singing."

Young spent several years in New York City, starting in the late 1950s, and ran with the biggest of the big dogs in the jazz world.  He played dates with many of those jazz giants, including John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Jackie McLean, Bud Powell and Lester Young.

He toured in Europe and throughout North America, fulfilled his military obligation in Japan during the Korean War, and served as both leader and sideman on a number of important recordings.

Perhaps best known of these recordings is his tribute to Billie Holiday. This 1957 album, For Lady , features a number of tunes associated with Holiday, and Young’s playing on the recording highlights the influence that she had on his development. Recalling his first encounter with Lady Day, Young noted that when she walked into a club where he was playing, “She warmed up the room like a pot-bellied stove.”

Young never stopped studying and teaching. He taught at what was to become the University of the District of Columbia, was the musical director for Lettumplay (a long-running jazz education program in Washington, D.C.), led the D.C. Music Center Jazz Workshop and privately taught piano and trumpet for nearly five decades.  He was constantly discovering new tools for his students to use, and would routinely go to lengths to help them grow.  His workshops were part music theory, part history and part ensemble playing, which he regularly extended from the classroom to the bandstand.

While he continued to evolve and develop musically, to have found his own voice – and remain true to it throughout – is strong testament indeed to his musical substance.

His mellow, fluid tone and soulful phrasing are instantly recognizable on recordings spanning more than four decades.  His level of substance, coupled with his generous spirit, is both rare and beautiful, and he will be greatly missed by family, friends and fans the world over.

His first marriage to Mary Marshall Young ended in divorce, and he is also survived by two children from that marriage, John Wardell Young of Washington D.C. and Terry Ann Powell of Silver Spring, Md.