An old Star-Ledger article about Jazz organ great Larry Young that I can’t find on line any more.
Larry Young’s Tragic Genius
by Guy Sterling
Sunday, March 30, 2003
Even in the freewheeling pop music scene of the ’60s and ’70s, Larry Young Jr. was hard-pressed to find his limit.
In a career that fell just short of spanning both decades, the Newark-born organist/keyboardis t raveled a musical path that took him from rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll to straight-ahead jazz to the birth of jazz-rock fusion to what one associate termed “extreme avant-garde.”
Along the way, he played with some of the most innovative and celebrated musicians of the last half-century, including John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Elvin Jones, John McLaughlin, Carlos Santana and Tony Williams.
With his evolution, which was as much spiritual as musical, Young converted to Islam, adopted the name “Khalid Yasin” and traded in a well-shorn, clean-cut look for a beard, braids, robe and Muslim head wrap.
One acquaintance recalled seeing him in his later years standing quietly on a hill in Central Park, carrying a staff and looking every bit the part of a shepherd overseeing his flock. At 6-foot-6 and weighing more than 200 pounds, Young could cut an imposing figure.
“Larry went all the way out,” said Robert Banks, a jazz pianist from Newark who followed Young’s career and observed him in the park that day. “He resigned himself from the human race.”
There was also the time Young broke into a home to play a piano he’d seen through a window and was arrested, but only after the owner who alerted police first sat down to listen. Another friend remembered Young tuning in to radio static for something to incorporate into his music.
And then there was Young’s fascination with astrology that led him to call people by their signs instead of their names, the concerts with no breaks between songs and the bands with musicians of less-than-stellar credentials. Later albums included compositions with titles such as
“Moonwalk” and “Message from Mars.”
Twenty-five years ago today, Young died of pneumonia in East Orange General Hospital. He was 37. One account has it he was the victim of a mugging; another says he died from drugs. Whatever the case, Young’s death went almost unnoticed. The respected jazz publication Down Beat took three months to run an obituary.
But in recent years, Young’s work has begun gaining wider recognition and has been discovered by a new generation of musicians and fans. In 1997, a jazz group in New York recorded a Larry Young tribute record.
Young’s recordings are increasingly valued by collectors, too. An original mint-condition copy of “Unity,” his best-known album as a group leader, recently sold on eBay for more than $150. Elvin Jones, the session’s drummer, called the record “immortal” and said Young’s work should be
viewed in the same light as that of Bach and Chopin.
Today, many jazz fans, musicians and scholars consider Young an unsung hero in an era when contemporary music was undergoing seismic changes, a uniquely gifted man constantly experimenting and always striving for new levels of originality.
“The organ has tended to be a relatively conservative instrument in jazz,” said Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University-Newark. “Larry Young was the exception.”
One litmus test of a jazz musician’s greatness is whether he or she can be identified with but a few notes of their music, added Nat Hentoff, a jazz critic who wrote the liner notes for some of Young’s albums. “It’s not easy to do with the organ, but you never had any doubt who Larry Young was,” he
By all accounts, Young’s musical beginnings were as old-fashioned as they could be. His father, Larry Young Sr., played the piano and introduced his son to music at an early age, teaching him the basics, paying for lessons and sending him to study at Arts High School in Newark.
The elder Young, now deceased, also owned several bars in Newark that featured live music, providing Larry Jr. ready access to both instruments and musicians. Newark saxophonist Leo Johnson, a longtime friend of the organist, remembered Young’s homes were always filled with keyboards.
“He’d literally sit and play all day,” Johnson said. “The only time Larry would take a break was to eat, go the bathroom or watch cartoons.”
Born in 1940, Young grew up in Newark at a time when the city’s jazz scene was still vibrant and when its home-grown talents, including Sarah Vaughan, Ike Quebec and Wayne Shorter, had made or were making names for themselves on the world stage.
Introduced to jazz in the mid-’50s by Jimmy Smith, the Hammond B-3 organ was a favorite attraction in the clubs of Newark and other urban centers. It would be the instrument that Young turned to for making his mark, though he continued to play the piano and later picked up the electric piano and
>From his rhythm and blues and rock roots, Young switched his attention to the challenges of jazz, first recording for Prestige. Between 1964 and 1969, he recorded six albums as a leader for the jazz label Blue Note.
“Alfred Lion (Blue Note’s co-founder) was really taken with Larry and gave him free rein,” said Michael Cuscuna, a friend of Young’s and a music producer whose Mosaic Records released Young’s Blue Note material on a 1991 compilation.
“Unity” was one of the Blue Note records, and it teamed Young with an all-star lineup: friend and fellow Newarker Woody Shaw on trumpet, Joe Henderson on saxophone and Jones. “Larry Young was a quartet all by himself,” said Jones, who remains active at 75. “He was coming from a place
very deep inside.”
In its review from November 1966, Down Beat hailed “Unity” as a record”delivered with assurance and drive rather than any personal scene-stealing. It leaves a good feeling after repeated hearings.”
In the mid-’60s, Young also developed a friendship with Coltrane and got rides out to the saxophonist’s home on Long Island to jam with him in his studio.
The relationship left such an impression on him that organist Jack McDuff started referring to Young as “the John Coltrane of the organ.” Jones, one of Coltrane’s drummers, said Young’s melodic lines were similar to Coltrane’s “in the emotion they could generate.”
“He (Coltrane) was reluctant to play with me at first, since he preferred the piano to organ,” Young was quoted saying in 1975, eight years after Coltrane’s death. “But one time in New York City he told me, ‘You could play a shoestring if you wanted to,’ and invited me out to play at his house.”
“John had every almost instrument you could think of, and they’d go into his studio for hours on end,” remembered Althea Young of Newark, who married the organist in March 1966. “They wouldn’t speak 50 sentences to each other while they were in there.”
Speculation on whether Coltrane had a tape rolling during those jams has excited jazz fans for decades, but nothing has ever surfaced if he did. “It’s a drag they didn’t do an album together,” said Cuscuna. “I’d kill to hear those tapes, if they exist.”
Frontiers of Fusion
But Young also came of age when rock ‘n’ roll was reaching its most fertile period and when some of the more adventurous jazz and rock musicians of the day were looking to each other for new sounds and styles to explore.
As the music shifted gears near the end of the ’60s, Young played a key role in two groundbreaking projects that, while they may have alienated purists, would be credited with giving rise to the jazz-rock fusion movement. One was Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” album; the other was the group Lifetime, with drummer Tony Williams and guitarist John McLaughlin.
Young played in each, staying with Lifetime for two records. Around the same time, he jammed with Hendrix in a New York studio, with the cut “Young/Hendrix” released on the posthumous Hendrix album “Nine to the Universe.”
“Larry Young was the only musician I saw who could push Hendrix,” producer Alan Douglas told The Star-Ledger in 1991.
“‘I pushed him just enough for him to stay interested and have some fun,'” Barrett Young recalled his older brother telling him about his jams with Hendrix. Barrett Young, 50, still keeps some of his brother’s musical tributes at his home in Newark, along with the organ Larry used on two of his final records, “Lawrence of Newark” and “Fuel.”
Young never apologized for straying from straight-ahead jazz and, in fact, complained that others didn’t follow his lead. “Musicians suffer when they do that,” he once said. “There are so many jazz players who could have made a major influence on rock but wouldn’t because of their attitude towards it.”
Cuscuna remembered Young inviting him to an early appearance of Lifetime at the old Village Gate in New York. “It was like seeing Hendrix live,” he said. “You got hit with a wall of sound. I didn’t know what they were doing, but it really knocked me out.”
McLaughlin said he had played in a number of organ trios before Lifetime and became Young’s biggest fan after hearing “Unity.” “Larry had the ‘new school’ thing going on,” McLaughlin, 61, said recently from his home in Monaco. “He was the only one who had it.”
The two men developed a close friendship during Lifetime’s brief existence, he said, in part because of their shared interest in the Muslim faith. McLaughlin also recalled Young’s ability to make up impromptu songs about people and capture every one of their idiosyncrasies. “Larry’s sense of humor destroyed everyone,” he said.
So could his music. One night in Boston, McLaughlin said he found Young’s solo so stirring he was literally moved to tears of joy.
McLaughlin left Lifetime first and, before hitting it big with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, included Young on the far-reaching “Love, Devotion and Surrender” album he put together with Santana. To some, Young’s genius peaked with his sideman’s role on that 1973 record. He later toured with the guitarists.
“Larry was perfect for the job,” McLaughlin recalled. “He and I were both looking inside and outside for another kind of spiritual dimension.”
In the last few years of his life, Young embarked on a determined but ultimately futile search for the success he had enjoyed earlier in his career. His last two albums, “Fuel” and “Spaceball,” recorded for Arista in 1975 and 1976, were commercial and critical flops.
“Fuel,” said Down Beat, didn’t generate enough energy “to toast a bagel.”
Those who knew Young best debate whether his final recordings were the reflections of a fragile soul in free fall or products of an ill-fated plan to capitalize on a market of fans eager to embrace the next new thing after the close of the psychedelic era.
Althea Young, 65, maintains her husband’s psyche was always vulnerable, the result of being abandoned by his mother as an infant and raised by an overly controlling father. Larry Young Jr. had three children with women other than his wife.
Althea Young acknowledged she and her husband had their troubles, causing her to leave for months at a time.
Friends, family and fellow musicians also acknowledged that Young was also more than a casual user of marijuana, cocaine, LSD and other drugs over an extended period. It’s unclear whether the drugs fed his vision or caused him to lose grip on reality. Some argue they did both.
What seems certain is that Young spent some of his final years discouraged and disillusioned, though his brother said he was close to signing a new recording contract when he died. Cuscuna, who feels Young was more frustrated than imbalanced, remembered seeing him in his waning months playing piano in a small Manhattan club.
“Larry’s attitude was, ‘Why am I here doing this when I was on top of so many important things in music?'” he said. “He wasn’t in a great frame of mind when he left us.”
Young also sat in occasionally with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, but McLaughlin said he could tell his former band mate was in turmoil. “Spiritually, he was unchanged, but psychologically and financially it was rough on him,” McLaughlin recalled. “He hadn’t been getting many gigs. He wasn’t his old self.”
According to Johnson, Young found getting dates harder and harder over his career, even in his hometown. “People in Newark wanted to hear that ‘Let’s Get Back to the Chicken Shack’ stuff,” he said. “That wasn’t Larry’s bag.”
Both McLaughlin and Jones feel Young was also a casualty of an era marked by indulgence and upheaval, some personal obstinacy and having no real role models to guide him.
“Larry lived in a special place,” McLaughlin said. “He wasn’t the type person you’d say, ‘Sit down, I have something to tell you.’ If you did, he’d just look at you with that big, genial smile of his. He’d hear you, but he wouldn’t hear you.”
Near the end, while part of a music collective based at a former stable in Newark, Young began toying with dissonance, where it didn’t so much matter what sounds were coming from the instruments that accompanied him, said Althea Young. Banks referred to that music as “extreme avant-garde.” Those were the days of the single-piece concerts.
“Larry would weave his own sound through the others and turn the noise into something you could listen to,” said Althea Young, who sang on two of her husband’s albums. “He believed sound was like light and that it traveled out into space forever. He was hoping to communicate with whoever else might be out there.”
Young’s funeral at at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Newark drew a crowd, but his grave in Rosemount Cemetery near Newark Liberty International Airport remains unmarked.
A memorial concert in his honor was held at CBS studios in New York in August 1978. Among those who played were Woody Shaw, McLaughlin and drummer Eddie Gladden, a boyhood friend of Young’s who had found him years earlier listening intently to radio static.
“You can tell from his music that Larry heard something different in his head,” Gladden said.
Bringing the organ into modern jazz and opening jazz to the innovations of rock are Young’s greatest legacies, and he seems poised only to increase in stature as the years go by, said Cuscuna. Others agreed.
“You hear him in the new breed of organ players,” said Johnson. “Like John Coltrane changed the pace for the saxophone, Larry Young set the pace for the organ.”
“Larry lived a musically creative life,” added McLaughlin. “His life wasn’t tragic, it just ended tragically. Who gets remembered? I don’t know. In the end, it doesn’t matter. What’s important is that he did it.”
This is a selected discography of Larry Young Jr. as a group leader:
- “Testifying,” Prestige (1960): Young’s first record for a major label. With Joe Holiday on sax, Thornel Schwartz on guitar and Jimmy Smith on drums.
- “Groove Street,” Prestige (1962): Includes first recording of Young’s “Talkin’ ’bout J.C.,” a reference to John Coltrane. With Holiday, Schwartz and Smith.
- “Into Somethin’,” Blue Note (1964): Young’s Blue Note debut echoed the tones of his recent European travels. With guitarist Grant Green, drummer Elvin Jones and saxophonist Sam Rivers.
- “Unity,” Blue Note (1965): Considered Young’s jazz masterpiece.
- “Contrasts,” Blue Note (1967): Includes vocals by Young’s wife, Althea. Was recorded as Young’s interest in astrology was growing. Liner notes include the signs of all the musicians.
- “Lawrence of Newark,” Perception (1973): Independent label record includes Coltrane collaborator Pharoah Saunders and guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer.
- “Fuel,” Arista (1975): Besides organ, Young plays synthesizers, organ, electric piano and acoustic piano and sings on “New York Electric Street Music.”
- “Spaceball,” Arista (1976): Young’s last — and unsuccessful — attempt to return to the glory days.
- Other notable Young performances appear on guitarist Grant Green’s “Talkin’ About” (1964); John McLaughlin’s “Devotion” (1970); Lifetime’s “Emergency!” (1969); Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” (1970), and McLaughlin and Carlos Santana’s Coltrane-influenced “Love, Devotion, Surrender” (1973).