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.
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