Prez, Homage to Lester Young, by Jamie Reid, was originally published in 1993 and reprinted in 2010 by Oolichan Books.
This is a very good thing. Prez, a long poem in nine parts is exactly as advertised, a homage to one of the greatest and most influential musicians who ever picked up a horn. Lester Young didn't just influence other musicians, he changed the world. Young had developed, quite naturally, a way of speaking, similar to the way he played the horn, a language we hadn't heard before but that was instantly recognizable. He made poetry.
For all the jazz-rats out there, and all the poetry about jazz, Reid has given us a volume richer than most with the actual feel of jazz.
"But here too is the voice of a language not yet spoken
by a race of men and women not yet born."
These poems do not, nor should they, offer an accurate biographical map of Lester Young's difficult life, instead they rejoice in language he invented, the doors of perception he opened. Lester Young was so far ahead of his time that we are still catching up.
Reid quotes Johnny Griffin, the great hard bebop tenor sax legend,
"He was the most beautiful man, the trunk of the swing tree, I would like to say.
No Prez - no Bird, no Dexter, no Coltrane, no Miles either.
Prez was truly the master of time and space,
nuances and understatements."
Prez was inspired in no small part by the Bertrand Tavernier film Round Midnight (1986), starring Dexter Gordon, a giant among living saxophone players, as a tortured legend named Dale Turner. Turner is a composite of Lester Young and the piano virtuoso Bud Powell. Gordon's delicately timed phrasing and sophisticated patter are direct nods to the brilliance of Lester Young. Reid, like Tavernier, is deeply concerned with the mood and atmosphere and in Prez, Reid hits all the right notes.
Michael Ondaatje's most excellent Coming Through Slaughter was a book about jazz and the toll it takes on people's lives. Jamie Reid's Prez belongs on the same shelf of great Canadian books of poetry as Ondaatje's tome about Buddy Bolden.
I love jazz and I love poetry, this completely charming book loves them both too. Prez is a classic of Canadian verse and I hope it is reprinted every 10 years from now until Lester Young no longer sounds good, until the sun runs out of steam.
Jamie Reid was one of the five original editors of TISH, has published several volumes of poems, his work is well anthologized and he can be found at either of the two poetry blogs he edits: Schroedinger's Cat (www.canitplease.blogspot.com) and Remembering Gerry Gilbert (www.gerrygilbert.blogspot.com).