Jazz Man, Nearing 100, Pauses
March 2, 2012 7:18 p.m. ET
Les Lieber in his home Natalie Keyssar for The Wall Street Journal
Les Lieber, who will turn 100 on March 16, has enjoyed a career that spans the entire history of jazz. In 1926, at 14, he was among the first musicians in his native St. Louis to play a newfangled instrument, the saxophone, on a newfangled medium, radio. And he has few rivals for the title of jazz's greatest pennywhistle soloist.
Mr. Lieber still plays both instruments every day. And he still appears each week at Jazz at Noon, the performance series he launched 47 years ago as a way for avid, nonprofessional players to play with real jazz pros. Since 1965, Jazz at Noon—which currently meets every Friday at the Players Club on Gramercy Park South—has occupied some 20 restaurants, night clubs and other venues.
But nothing lasts forever.
Watch a video of jazz saxophonist and penny whistle virtuoso Les Lieber playing his instruments and discussing his life.
"I had intended to keep going until we hit 50 years," Mr. Lieber said recently in his apartment on Lower Broadway. "But I think we might use my 100th birthday as a good opportunity to call it a day."
If that sounds like the sudden end to one of New York's longest-running jazz series, fans need not necessarily despair.
"Les has been saying 'This will be the final season' for over 20 years by now," said his wife, Edie. The two have been married for nearly 60 years. ("It's kind of embarrassing," she said, "but neither one of us remembers exactly when we got married.")
Indeed, the Jazz at Noon schedule shows performances slated through the season finale on May 18—nine weeks after the show to mark Mr. Lieber's 100th birthday. So, clearly, a decision still needs to be made. But these things take time.
The conversation about Jazz at Noon and his centennial led Mr. Lieber to reminisce about the first time he heard a saxophone—it may have been played by the famous Six Brown Brothers, in the early 1920s. His mind also flashed forward a decade to his service as a foreign correspondent in Paris for the New York Times, when he was one of the first to break the news of the impending Spanish Civil War. (He was also leading a band of expatriate players at the time.)
Mr. Lieber's bathroom wall is papered with articles he wrote during his journalism career. Natalie Keyssar for The Wall Street Journal
Remarkably, though he has been playing jazz consistently for more than 85 years, and leading and presenting bands for most of that time, he never aspired to be a full-time musician.
"My three interests in life are golf, jazz and language—and I learned French, German and Spanish pretty well," he said.
It was his love of language and words that led him into his parallel career as a journalist. But first came the music.
Mr. Lieber's first horn was the now-forgotten C melody saxophone, which he picked up in the '20s. Within a few years, he had switched to alto, and by then he had also discovered the pennywhistle. He became, as far as anyone knows, the first to apply jazz techniques to what a CBS radio announcer would later call "a 10-cent celluloid fife."
"Pretty soon I could play two whistles at once," he said. "In the '20s, it just sounded wrong. Nowadays, it sounds 'modern.'"
By the end of 1938, Mr. Lieber and his first wife and two sons had settled in New York, and he found work with CBS, writing press releases and serving as a personal publicist for, among others, two of history's most celebrated bandleaders, Benny Goodman and Paul Whiteman. During his years in radio, he also doubled as a regular pennywhistle soloist on the popular program "Saturday Night Swing Club."
Mr. Lieber's finest moment as a musician occurred in Paris, and it hardly involved music at all. At the tail end of World War II, after four years in the service, he was appointed head of publicity for the American Armed Forces Network, and he set about scouring France for one of his musical inspirations. "During the period leading up to the Liberation of Paris, I was wondering what had happened to Django Reinhardt," he said. "I decided that I would try to find him and bring him to the AFN studios."
As it turned out, there was some cause for concern: The pioneering gypsy jazz guitarist had been essentially trapped in France during the German occupation. The Nazis had infamously denounced both jazz and gypsies, but since many German officers secretly loved jazz, they actually protected Reinhardt.
After the Americans arrived, Mr. Lieber remembered, "the main worry was that the Allies might question Django for being cozy with the Germans."
Mr. Lieber spent several days with Reinhardt in Paris, at which point he made two remarkable documents. The first was one of the only known photographs of the elusive gypsy with his caravan, in which he is shown playing for a group of children. The other was a recorded jam session, in which Mr. Lieber played alto sax on "Honeysuckle Rose" and pennywhistle on "Sweet Sue."
After the war, Mr. Lieber wrote primarily for This Week magazine, a Sunday supplement that appeared in newspapers around the country.
Then, in 1965, he founded Jazz at Noon for musicians like himself—avocational players who played at a professional level and wanted to jam with celebrity guest stars. Through the years, jazz legends such as Clark Terry and Bob Wilber joined up to play with countless lawyers, accountants and dentists.
Mr. Lieber has appeared at Jazz at Noon every week, apart from those when he has been on the road—at 99 he's still a peripatetic world traveler.
But even when he isn't at the Players Club, he still plays every day for at least two 30-minute periods. "I don't like to call it practicing," he said. "I like to play tunes."
After 85 years of playing the saxophone, he's done with practicing.