Les Lieber, sax player, Jazz at Noon founder, journalist, dies at 106

Les and Edith Lieber with their good friend newsstand operator David Eia. Photo by Jon Lieber

BY GABE HERMAN | Les Lieber, a longtime Village resident and founder and organizer of weekly Jazz at Noon shows in the city, died July 10 on Fire Island. He was 106.

Lieber loved to play jazz, including alto sax and pennywhistle, and performed throughout the years in Jazz at Noon, which, over the span of 47 years, was the longest-running jazz show in New York history, according to his son Jon. Jazz at Noon featured skilled amateur players mixing with professional guests. The event would draw around 250 people every Friday.

“He had a passion for music. He was a natural musician,” recalled jazz guitarist Bill Wurtzel, a friend who played Jazz at Noon shows for many years. “I played with him up until he was 105.”

Lieber was born in St. Louis but lived his adult life in New York City.

“He was a quintessential New Yorker,” said his son.

Les and his wife, Edith, 94, had been living in the Village since 1984, on Broadway near Astor Place.

Lieber served in the military during World War II, and was involved on the intelligence end as cities were being liberated, first in Paris and then going east. He helped to open Armed Forces Network radio studios, putting together bands and musicians, which was a natural talent of his, according to Jon, along with speaking five languages fluently.

Lieber was a Francophile, and that along with his love of jazz led him in Paris to seek out then-obscure jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, now considered one of the greats, who Lieber put on AFN radio, Jon said. Reinhardt would eventually go on to play Carnegie Hall.

After the war, Lieber put jazz aside and became a journalist. He was a writer and editor for This Week, a Sunday syndicated magazine. He interviewed iconic athletes like Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Yogi Berra and golfer Sam Snead.

Lieber wrote an article about how he beat Snead in a round of golf. He noted toward the end of the piece, though, that he really won because of the pro’s love of doing wood carvings, and that at the first tee, Snead took a nearby tree branch, carved it into a golf club, and then played the whole round with that carving.

Despite all of the famous people Lieber interviewed, which also included Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow and many rock stars, he never bragged or felt impressed by big names, according to his son, who said his father was “extremely humble, in everything that he did.”

Lieber also did freelance work in public relations for many years, according to Jon. During WWII, he was involved in the publicity effort to recycle scrap metal and paper for the war effort.

Les Lieber playing saxophone at Jazz at Noon in 1983 when he was 71.

In 1965, Les Lieber felt that he was living a good, successful life, but yearned to play music again. Living in the city, he didn’t have a garage to jam in with friends, so he sought a restaurant to host them; it turned into Jazz at Noon, a weekly show for professionals, including lawyers, doctors and people in advertising to play jazz. Professional guest spots would include Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz and Paquito D’Rivera.

The first venue was Chuck’s Composite, a restaurant on E. 53rd St. The event would move around over the years, including to the Rough Rider Room at the Roosevelt Hotel in the 1970s. It ended up at the Players Club, in Gramercy, where Lieber celebrated his 100th birthday as Jazz at Noon ended in 2012 after 47 years.

Les Lieber played jazz until the end of his life, including summer shows at Fire Island, where he and wife Edith owned a home in Ocean Beach.

The “day job” of a drummer in the Jazz at Noon shows, Robert Litwak, was chief thoracic surgeon at Mt. Sinai Hospital, recalled Bill Wurtzel, who played in the shows for years when he was in advertising. Wurtzel is now a professional jazz guitarist, and credits Jazz at Noon as a good training ground for his musical career.

“When a patient who was my advertising client awoke from bypass surgery, Bob told him that he was my drummer,” Wurtzel recalled. “The patient would have preferred to hear that his surgeon was a full-time surgeon.

“Les played swing and the American Songbook,” Wurtzel said, “toe-tapping jazz.”

Les Lieber was serious when it came to ensuring the shows’ quality.

“He was very fussy about who would play and what they would play,” Wurtzel recalled. “He was a taskmaster. It wasn’t like, just come on and do whatever you want to do. You had to be good. And if you were good, he would recognize it.”

While Lieber kept high standards for the shows, Wurtzel said it was Lieber himself that drew in the big guest stars.

“All the great jazz musicians came to play Jazz at Noon because of Les’s personality,” Wurtzel said. “He was like a bon vivant. He was really very confident, and people gravitated toward him.”

He described his relationship with Lieber as particularly close and centered around the music.

Playing with Lieber in those shows was more than another gig for renowned professional vibraphonist Warren Chiasson, who went back to the earliest days of Les Lieber’s shows.

“Jazz at Noon became like a special family to me, a second family,” Chiasson recalled. “I find that I really like these people, I really like Les’s family.”

Les Lieber, left, golfing with Sam Snead, who carved his own golf club while they were on the links.

Chiasson has also played during his career with Chet Baker, B.B. King and Roberta Flack.

“I was there when they celebrated his birthdays,” he said, “and I’m happy to report that Les’s family has always been a cherished part of my life.”

Wurtzel noted that Lieber “had a great sense of humor, an acerbic sense of humor…very sharp, not silly, but caustic almost,” and that “off the stand, he was very cordial, very sophisticated.”

“He was a true gentleman, in every sense,” said Jon Lieber. “Truly humble. He was extremely intelligent. Travel was a very big part of his life and became a big part of our life.”

Also a talented athlete, Les Lieber was an accomplished college pitcher, Jon said. The St. Louis Browns briefly showed interest in him in the early 1930s.

“He was a great golfer,” remembered Jon. Even into his later years, Lieber was able to shoot under his age. “I think he shot an 80 when he was 90,” Jon recalled.

Jon Lieber noted that in his father’s later years, he “walked 80, 90 blocks, every day, without even thinking. That’s what kept him going, and he never thought of himself as being old.”

When Les Lieber was 105, he was asked to play his sax in front of a group of seniors, and leaned over to Jon and said, “I don’t really want to play for these people, they’re really old.”

Lieber and his wife Edith were good friends with a nearby Village newsstand vendor, David Eia, whose kiosk is on Broadway near Eighth St.

“He kept an eye on my dad and my mom,” said Jon, which included helping Edith carry groceries back to their apartment, located a few doors down from there.

When Les and Edith were hosting a party, Eia would close down his stand to attend. Whenever Lieber came by, Eia would give him special attention.

“He would stop what he’s doing,” Jon recalled. “He would hand my dad a chocolate bar every day.”

Eia, who is from Senegal and has manned the newsstand since 1994, called Lieber a “very good friend.” He noted that Hershey bars were the centenarian sax man’s favorite. Eia reflected that Lieber’s death was sad, but “he lived a very good life.”

In Les Lieber’s final days, it was getting hard for him to shave. When Eia noticed this, he ended up going back to Lieber’s apartment with him to give him a clean shave.

Jon Lieber remembered that seeing the familiar news vendor “became a source of inspiration for my dad in the later years. You get to be 106, it’s pretty simple things that keep you going.”

Les Lieber is survived by his wife Edith (nee Shapiro), a lifelong New Yorker; sons Jon, 56, and David, 59; two stepsons that he raised, Jeffrey Katz, 70, and Jamie Katz, 67; seven grandchildren, and one great-granddaughter.

There will be a tribute show for Les Lieber on Sat., July 28, at the Community Center in Ocean Beach, Fire Island, on Long Island. It will feature a quartet including his longtime playing partners and friends guitarist Bill Wurtzel and vibraphonist Warren Chiasson.

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