HOWARD "HOWIE" LEESS 1920 - 2003
Photo of Howie Leess
(Photo: Donna Binder)



This page is a humble tribute to Howard "Howie" Leess (z"l), the great klezmer clarinetist and saxophonist who provided such an important link between the earlier generations of American born klezmorim and the klezmer "revival" of the last quarter of the 20th century C.E. A real mensh whose "neshoma really shone through in his playing", to quote Eve Sicular, his playing could not fail to deeply touch all who heard him or who will still hear his recordings. Howie Leess (z"l) left us all the poorer with his sadly passing away on August 23rd, 2003.


Howard (Howie) Leess 1920 - 2003: An Obituary

The obituary following here was originally posted to the Jewish-music mailing list on August 26th, 2003 by renowned klezmer musician Pete Rushefsky. Short and to the point, it is an affectionate tribute that gives some wonderful insights on Howie Leess, both man and musician.

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

Copyright © 2003 Pete Rushefsky. All rights reserved. Reproduced by kind permission of the author.


Howard (Howie) Leess 1920 - 2003: A Tribute and Anecdote

The following anecdote, originally posted to the Jewish-music mailing list on August 26th, 2003 by renowned klezmer bandleader and percussionist Eve Sicular in response to Pete Rushefsky's obituary, provides both a loving tribute and further insights on man and musician, Howie Leess.

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 Leesses 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 world views, 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.

Eve Sicular

Copyright © 2003 Eve Sicular. All rights reserved. Reproduced by kind permission of the author.


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