Howie Leess, 1920-2003, in Memoriam

Clarinetist and mensh Howie Leess passed away on Saturday, August 23rd. I have collected some of the memorials sent to me, and posted to the Jewish-Music mailing list and elsewhere, starting with a first e-mail from Eve to me. (I had met Howie at performances of her band.) [ari]

From: Eve Sicular
Date: Sun, 24 Aug 2003

I am sorry to pass along the news that our great friend and wonderful musical comrade Howard (Howie) Leess died early yesterday. His funeral was held today in the Rochester NY area.

It's hard for me to write much more than that right now. I know that his widow Shirley sent her message to a number of klezmer world people who knew Howie well, so perhaps someone else will have posted this. if not, perhaps you could inform the list. I am so glad you and so many people had the chance to be at live performances he gave so beautifully.

we miss him... a beautiful man; an inspiration to have known him!

Date: Tue, 26 Aug 2003
From: Pete Rushefsky.

Sadly, the great New York saxophonist/clarinetist Howie Leess passed away on Saturday in Rochester, NY. I'm sure Henry Sapoznik and others could do a much better job with an obituary to this master musician and wonderful human being than I could, but I'll give a try:

Howie studied reed instruments with Shloimke Beckerman as a child and then went on to play and record with the likes of Naftule Brandwein, Dave Tarras, the Epstein Brothers, Rudy Teppel, as well as many of the best Society Bands of the times such as Lester Lannan's Orchestra.

In recent years, he was an important link for younger generations of klezmorim, recording the seminal Klezmer Plus! album with Sid Beckerman (Shloimke's son), appearing many times at KlezKamp and as a featured artist on last year's Yiddish Radio Project tour.

His ability to create beautiful harmonic and counterpunctual tenor sax lines was only matched by the love and kindness with which he shared his art.

Howie is survived by his wife Shirley, two sons and a bunch of grandchildren.

I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to play with him and develop a friendship with him and Shirley after his move to upstate NY in the late 1990's. I will miss him very much.

May his light in Gan Eyden burn brightly.

Pete Rushefsky

Date: Tue, 26 Aug 2003
From: Jordan Hirsch

I played for a number of years with Howie, first for the Messengers, then Neshoma, and for Satmar bandleader Ben Zion Moshe Rosenberg as well as the odd Klezmer date.

Howie and I played all over New York, as well as a number of "out-of town" gigs, where he was a kind and delightful traveling companion. While he was well known and acclaimed for his rhythmic saxophone accompaniments, he was an excellent harmony section player, who could play any chair in a horn section with a sensitive ear and smooth, seamless harmonies. From about 1983 until 1988, I probably did forty to fifty gigs a year with him. In all that time, an unkind word never crossed his lips. He was a good musician and a real gentleman. I miss him and will remember him fondly.

From: Eve Sicular
Date: Tue, 26 Aug 2003

Thanks, Pete. I feel wholeheartedly as you do about Howie. I believe that the Klezmer Plus! notes have some more about Howie's background too. I miss him, and would like to add a story or two, including one I just heard about Howie (and Shirley) Leess.

I called Ismail Butera, our Metropolitan Klezmer accordionist, on Saturday morning to tell him the news about Howie. Later that day, Ismail was visiting his mother and talking about old times. Like Howie, whose first music lessons were from his immigrant father, Ismail learned early on from his father, Duka ("Duke") Butera. Ismail and I had played together with Howie since at least 1990, and we had all performed and recorded together for years since, but somehow it was only this weekend, later on the same day when Howie had just died, that Ismail's mother picked up on Howie's name and told him that she and Ismail's father had known the Leeses for years. When the Albanian-American Buteras first met them in the 1940s, Howie and Shirley were newly married, living in a one-bedroom house in Coney Island. Duke and Howie worked together at New York-area music jobs, and Duke (who died many years ago now) always said that Howie was the nicest musician he ever met. "Remember, how Daddy would say that?," she told Ismail.

Howie's recordings of his beautiful clarinet doyna and Der Gasn Nigun were re-released this spring on our Metropolitan Klezmer "Surprising Finds" CD, and I'm happy to say that in our emails he told me he was very pleased with his sound there. Our last live performance with him, in June 2001 at the 92nd Street Y, was videotaped by the Kaufmann Concert Hall and is in their archives. Howie was virtuosic yet never overstated, the unpretentious star of the show; audiences adored him. His evocative, soulful style came right from the heart, and inspired me to form our group (originally called the Greater Metropolitan Klezmer Band) in 1994. When I first asked him if he would like to make a demo together, Howie told me, "I like seeing a woman run the business." As for Howie's legendary ear for improvising inner harmonies, in styles from big band to small klezmer ensemble, I believe it was Pete Sokolow who said to me that this ability to find the hidden musical way through had earned Howie the bandstand nickname "the mountain goat," perhaps in the Lester Lanin circles. He had a wonderful smile, a twinkle in his eye, a gentle bubbling giggle, quite progressive & knowing worldviews, a consummate professionalism linked with a caring willingness to serve, an unfailing sense of dignity and style, and a devoted sense of friendship.

Knowing Howie was always a joy and a pleasure, and I am so grateful for all the loving guidance and support he shared with us. May his memory continue as a blessing.

From: Margot Leverett
Date: Wed, 27 Aug 2003

How sad to lose Howie. He's a perfect example of an awesome musician who was also a warm-hearted and generous human being.

Pete thank you for writing beautifully about him.

From: Michael Winograd
Date: Wed, 27 Aug 2003

Howie was a great man, and a wonderful teacher...i will miss him.

From: Roberta Levine
Date: Wed, 27 Aug 2003

Howie was a gentleman in the truest sense. I was very fortunate to have met him in Rochester a few years ago when he performed with Metropolitan Klezmer and at Klez Kamp. Also shared the same bill with him at Central New York's KlezFest 2001. He will be missed by all.

From: Dena Ressler
Date: Fri, 29 Aug 2003

My 2 groshn, tho' not as eloquent as Eve's, Jordan's, Pete's et al's.

Howie had an incredibly "zise neshome" (sweet soul). I think this came out in his playing.

He played the most amazing clarinet doyne I ever heard in my life at KlezKamp 2 years ago, I was truly mezmerized. I am SO glad that his playing has been CD'd by Eve Sicular, Henry Sapoznik ("Klezmer Plus") and also videoed (tho' Henry, will the tons of videos and recordings made at the various KK's ever be made available to us "proste klezmorim?"....). I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to get to know him a little, to have his gotten his comments on my playing, and to have been a witness to his inspired and inspiring musical genius. "er zol hobn a likhtike gan eyden."

From: Cyril Robinson
Date: Fri, 29 Aug 2003

I was fortunate enough to have interviewed Howie and his wife in December 2002 for the Jewish Music Archives at the Klezfest and to also have recorded the concert he played with the "Old Timers." If you are in Chicago, you can listen in on the 8th floor of the library. We are planning to add streaming at which time you can listen anywhere. In interviewing other musicians, many commented on his generosity in helping younger artists.

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