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R. I. P., Tenor Saxophonist David Young

A tribute to an unsung hero of the Indiana Avenue jazz scene.

Tenor saxophonist David Young, who was an integral part of the David-Baker-led Indianapolis hardbop group that was absorbed by George Russell at the beginning of the 1960s, passed away early this Friday morning. He was 75 years old.

Some Young Biography

Born in Indianapolis in 1933, Young was a member of the amazing Indiana Avenue generation of the 1950s, a group that also included Baker, Freddie Hubbard, and Wes Montgomery. He appears on the Russell albums Jazz in the Space Age, Kansas City, At the Five Spot, and Stratusphunk. He also recorded a very good album (his only one as a leader) for the Mainstream label in the 1970s, with a lineup that included fellow Indy trumpeter Virgil Jones, saxophonist Sonny Fortune, pianist Harold Mabern, bassist Richard Davis, and drummer Idris Muhammad.(Whew!).

A fellow student, along with Baker, at the now-legendary Lenox School of Jazz, Young in his early period was sometimes influenced by John Coltrane (a hard thing for any young tenor circa 1961 to avoid), but he always had a distinctive sound that evolved throughout the 1960s and 70s into a fluid, inside/outside attack of quiet strength (with a biting, soulful edge on the Mainstream album–perhaps a result of his time with Brother Jack McDuff). Unknown to the general jazz public, he retained a great deal of respect among his fellow artists; in addition to George Russell and Baker, he worked with Frank Foster’s big band, Sam Rivers’ Harlem Ensemble, and Lionel Hampton’s Inner Circle.

Avoiding the Limelight

Musician and jazz writer Allen Lowe saw Young years ago with the Ellington orchestra, in its post-Duke, Mercer-led incarnation:

He was brilliant – he sorta served as the Paul Gonsalves tenor when I saw the band – it was probably 1980 or so and I remember thinking, who is this guy and where has he been hiding?

David Baker, Young’s long-running musical colleague, cites his friend’s shyness and deliberate low profile as one reason why he never became better known:

He always said he’d rather practice than play…but when he played, he played, man! His playing always revealed him in a good light.

Although I haven’t yet learned the cause of death, it seems Young’s health was rather fragile, and he was unable to attend Mark Sheldon‘s Great Day in Indy photo shoot last year. Nevertheless, a couple of people close to him expressed surprise and shock upon receiving the news.

I was very fortunate to hear Young several times, including a quasi-revival of the Russell-Baker group in 2004 (during which he took a solo on Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” that nearly brought my wife and me to tears) and a performance  with organist Melvin Rhyne (a former bandmate of Wes Montgomery‘s) just last year.

You can hear David Young on the Night Lights program When Russell Met Baker. (In his liner notes to the At the Five Spot reissue, Kirk Silsbee says that Young was “by all accounts the spark plug of the Russell-Baker band.”) Night Lights will also air a tribute program to David in mid-April that will include remarks from David Baker, as well as some previously-unreleased performances of Baker and Young.

For More David Young…

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