Les Lieber, Who Served Jazz to the Lunch Crowd, Dies at 106
Posted July 16, 2018 8:39 p.m. EDT
Les Lieber, who for more than 45 years ran Jazz at Noon, a fabled New York institution where talented amateur players got together every week to stretch their skills and to perform alongside top-flight professionals, died July 10 on Fire Island, New York. He was 106.
His stepson Jamie Katz confirmed the death.
Lieber had a substantial career as a publicist and journalist when, in September 1965, he organized the first Jazz at Noon, partly to give himself a chance to play his alto saxophone and penny whistle for an audience. It was on a Monday at lunch hour at Chuck’s Composite, a restaurant on East 53rd Street.
“I was dying on the vine as a musician,” he told The New York Times in 1975, recalling the origin of the sessions. “I hadn’t had my sax out of its case in eight years. I felt there must be others like me who would love to play but couldn’t get a rhythm section together without disrupting their families.”
The experiment soon had a following, as players who might have once had thoughts of a professional career but had become doctors, lawyers or accountants pulled instruments out of closets. Soon Lieber added to the allure by recruiting professionals, for a modest fee, to drop in as guest stars.
“There’s sometimes been some grumbling from the pros about having to get up so early,” he said as the rolling jam reached its 10th anniversary. “But that hasn’t prevented people like Dizzy Gillespie or Buddy Rich or Clark Terry or Bobby Hackett from playing with us.”
Jazz at Noon moved around over the decades to various Manhattan locations. Lieber both played at the sessions and acted as master of ceremonies. In 2011 he announced the end of Jazz at Noon, which was then encamped at the Players club on Gramercy Park South in Manhattan. But he would play at least one other session at that club the next year. It was to celebrate his 100th birthday.
Leslie Lieber was born on March 16, 1912, in St. Louis. His father, also named Leslie, was a grocer, and his mother, Rosalie (Dillenberg) Lieber, was a homemaker. He grew up in St. Louis.
“I used to hum a lot when I was growing up,” he told The Wall Street Journal in an interview for his 100th birthday, “and my mother would say, ‘What are you humming?’ Because I was improvising and I didn’t know it.”
After attending Washington University there, he transferred to the University of Chicago, receiving a bachelor’s degree in European history and languages in 1934.
During World War II he served in the Army’s 9th Air Force, then as publicity director for the American Forces Network. He would often tell of meeting guitarist Django Reinhardt in Paris in 1945 and jamming with him on his penny whistle.
Lieber became a writer and editor. Working for the syndicated Sunday supplement This Week, he covered entertainment, interviewing many celebrities. He also did publicity work, including for some leading jazz figures.
His desire to perform himself never wore off, however, and in 1965, with the help of a publicist friend, Georgeanne Aldrich, he started Jazz at Noon. He soon moved the sessions from Mondays to Fridays, the music seeming more suited to ending the week than starting it.
His guess that there were others like him — good musicians who had given up dreams of playing professionally and moved on to the workaday world — proved correct. The Jazz at Noon bandstand, over the years, was filled by all sorts of people.
Robert Litwak, a cardiothoracic surgeon, was a frequent drummer at the sessions. Ormond Gale, a judge, occasionally came from Syracuse, New York, with his trombone. Bucky Thorpe, a truck driver, would sit in on trumpet whenever he could get a parking space. A Times article in 1965 described John Bucher, a stockbroker, as “the best amateur jazz cornetist in the United States and the only one who can give the latest Dow Jones averages between the second and third choruses.”
Lieber took to hiring a professional bassist to provide stability in the rhythm section. The author Donald Bain, a vibraphonist, described the sessions in a 1975 interview with The Times.
“They vary: sloppy at times, tight and swinging at others,” he said, “depending on what combination is on the stand and whether the accountant-pianist is in tax season or the surgeon-drummer lost a patient that morning.”
But Jazz at Noon was never a mere amateur jam, as one of the professionals who sat in, the singer Jon Hendricks, noted in 1987.
“I’d call them nonworking musicians, rather than nonprofessionals,” he said, “because they could virtually all make a living as good musicians had they not chosen a different career.”
In addition to Katz, Lieber is survived by his second wife, Edith; two sons, David and Jonathan; another stepson, Jeffrey Katz; seven grandchildren and step-grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
Lieber saw so many players over the years that he came to rank professions by their musicianship. Doctors, he said, were better than lawyers — “more romantic, more interested in humanity.” Politicians, he said, “are among our worst musicians.”
They must have been absent on the day in February 1983 when representatives of the Perpignan wine region of France, on a visit to New York, caught Jazz at Noon and were impressed. It led to a road trip for the players who were there that day. Later that year they traveled to France to play at a festival.
“Les spoke impeccable French and arranged lavish dinners, accommodations and gifts,” the guitarist Bill Wurtzel, an advertising creative director and Jazz at Noon regular back then (and now a professional musician), recalled by email. “It was peach season, and I still have a case of peach wine.”