Les Lieber, ‘Jazz at Noon’ Founder, Dies at 106

For 47 years, he ran one of the hippest jam sessions in NYC

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Les Lieber in 1982

Type the name Les Lieber into YouTube’s search bar and—as is the case with most musicians—a number of performance clips immediately pop up. The top result dates from 1939 and shows a young musician killing it on penny whistle, an instrument that rarely finds its way into jazz.

Just a couple of videos down from there, we see an alto saxophonist in 2012, blowing a respectable “There Will Never Be Another You” with a band he’s fronting. It’s the same guy—in that second clip Lieber is celebrating his 100th birthday, still doing what he loves.

Lieber, who also founded New York City’s long-running Jazz at Noon concert series and the annual Fire Island, N.Y., Chill Out concert, died July 10 on Fire Island at age 106. Details on the cause of death have not been disclosed, but Lieber’s passing was confirmed by guitarist Bill Wurtzel, who played with Lieber, and jazz publicist Jim Eigo.

Leslie Lieber was born March 16, 1912, his birth predating the release of the first commercial jazz recording by five years. He grew up in St. Louis during the Great Depression and took up penny whistle, which he played with Paul Whiteman, Dizzy Gillespie, and Lionel Hampton, among other jazz greats. He began playing the C-melody saxophone in 1926, one of the first musicians in St. Louis to use the instrument, then switched to alto.

Lieber spent most of his employment years in New York as a journalist, but he considered jazz his primary passion and avocation, serving as a publicity representative for clients including Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, according to a 2004 profile in The New York Times. During World War II, he was stationed in Paris with the American Forces Network; there, in 1945, he played penny whistle with Django Reinhardt. He was also employed for some time by CBS Radio, and performed on its popular program Saturday Night Swing Club.

After the war, Lieber worked primarily for This Week, a syndicated Sunday newspaper supplement. Among the more than 700 articles he contributed to This Week between 1946 and 1970 was one titled “How to Serenade a Fish,” in which he outlined just that task, noting that fish did not seem to enjoy the music of Elvis Presley.

In 1965, Lieber founded Jazz at Noon, a weekly jam session in Manhattan (originally on Mondays, later on Fridays) for non-professional jazz players—including doctors, lawyers, and others—to show off their chops during their lunch hour. At its peak, the series drew as many as 300 attendees a week. Some were ringers, including Jon Hendricks, who told the Times in 1987 that he preferred to call the people he mingled with at these jams “non-working musicians, rather than non-professionals, because they could virtually all make a living as good musicians had they not chosen a different career.” Jazz at Noon was held, over the years, at nearly two dozen different NYC restaurants and clubs. Lieber discontinued it in 2012 after 47 years, when he turned 100.

Lieber appeared in a 2011 documentary film titled Over 90 and Loving It, was active on his Facebook account as late as 2016, and gave his final public performance on Fire Island’s Ocean Beach last July.

Les Lieber in 2002
Lieber with his beloved penny whistle in 2002 (photo: Jon Lieber)