Jack Lesberg, the Compleat Bassist
Mid-February is a good time to remember the prolific and proficient bassist Jack Lesberg, who was born in Boston on February 14, 1920. Thirty years later, in February 1950, George Frazier, writing in Pageant, named Lesberg to his all-time all-star band, where he shared rhythm section duties with Earl Hines, Charlie Christian, and Gene Krupa. Now, you can take or leave Frazier, but if Lesberg wasn’t worthy of Frazier’s list in 1950, I don’t know who was.
Lesberg played his first stringed instrument at age eight. It was his brother’s violin, and young Jack studied violin and viola with Karl Barleben of the Boston Symphony for six years. (His brother, Dave Lester, led a successful commercial band in Boston and Miami in the ‘40s and ‘50s.) He switched to the double bass when he was 17, and went into the nightclubs. He worked with Silvio Scafati’s band, and with Jack Manning and His Cavalier Strings, in the late 1930s. He also sat in at the Theatrical Club with Bobby Hackett, and this led Lesberg to a job with Muggsy Spanier in 1940.
Lesberg was back in Boston in 1942 and playing in Mickey Alpert’s Orchestra at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, a band Frazier once called “excruciating.” He was working on the night of the infamous fire, a story he told many times. Lesberg moved to New York in 1943. There he quickly established himself as a top bassist in the world of “Nicksieland,” or “New York Dixieland,” that stronghold of small group improvisation and a book stocked with “the good old good ones,” but that also included saxophones, guitars and basses instead of banjos and tubas, and drummers who played with swing-band feel. Lesberg had friends from Boston equally at home in that style—Hackett, Max Kaminsky, Brad Gowans, Joe Dixon, and frequent section mate Buzzy Drootin.
Lesberg, though, was versatile and classically trained, and by 1945 he was playing concert music with the City Center Symphony under Leonard Bernstein (he stayed until 1948), working lucrative radio jobs like the Lucky Strike Hit Parade, and serving as house bassist at Eddie Condon’s club. In the late 1940s Lesberg worked out of town with Jack Teagarden, then with Condon.
It was in the 1950s that Lesberg needed his passport. As one of Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars, he went to Europe, Africa and Australia. He toured Europe with Earl Hines in 1957, Doc Severinsen in 1962, and Armstrong again in 1965. He toured Asia and Australia with Condon in 1964, and the UK and Latin America with George Wein’s Newport All-Stars in 1967. Finally, in 1971, Lesberg moved to Australia, to play bass with the Sydney Symphony. He stayed for four years before returning to New York.
Even with his ambitious travel schedule, Lesberg logged many hours in the recording studio. Over a 50-year period, he recorded with every important mainstream jazz artist and vocalist. The Lord Discography has Lesberg on 274 sessions, and only four bassists (Milt Hinton, Ray Brown, Red Mitchell, and Paul Chambers) played on more.
Lesberg slowed down in the 1980s, with one last European tour with Ruby Braff’s Armstrong tribute group, and travels across his own country on the jazz party circuit. He was on Benny Goodman’s last band in 1985.
Lesberg played publicly for the last time at his 83rd birthday tribute at the Arbors Records “March of Jazz” party in Florida in 2003. He died two years later, in September 2005, from complications of Alzheimer’s disease.
Lesberg as a bassist was steady and unobtrusive, and an infrequent soloist. He’s on this 1956 Eddie Condon date, and the bass is somewhat pronounced. I wonder if that was the engineer’s doing, rather than Jack’s, but you can hear his line clearly. He’s with old friends Hackett and Drootin, and joined in the section by Dick Cary on piano. The tune is “Dark Eyes.”