Howie Leess, 82; Versatile Saxophonist


Among klezmer and chasidic music circles, reedman Howie Leess was known as "the mountain goat."

The saxophone player "created harmony lines that were so apropos and actually adventurous, he climbed the tune like a mountain goat," said the pianist Pete Sokolow, who first met Leess in the 1960s when they played together in Jewish ensembles like Sy Kushner’s Mark III and the Epstein Brothers Orchestra.

"He had ears like nobody’s business," Sokolow recalled this week.

Mr. Leess died Aug. 22 at his home near Rochester, N.Y. He was 82.

He once told a local newspaper, "I’ll continue to play as long as I can." True to his word, Mr. Leess was still performing with jazz, concert and klezmer bands until last November, when leukemia and respiratory problems prevented him from playing, Shirley Leess, his wife of nearly 58 years, told The Jewish Week.

Mr. Leess, a Brooklyn native, clamored for a saxophone as a child and studied with the renowned klezmer clarinetist Shloimke Beckerman. Mr. Leess later played professionally alongside Shloimke’s son Sid.

At 13, Mr. Leess had gigs at Catskills hotels, and before he was 21 he was touring with Jerry Wald and George Handy, among other big band names. He played for royalty with Lester Lanin, and performed with other society orchestras, like Peter Duchin’s.

But his roots were in Jewish tunes. In the mid-1940s Mr. Leess worked for bandleader Joe King, making a mark in the burgeoning chasidic music field. Most recently he recorded with Sokolow on "Klezmer Plus!" and played in the 2002 tour of the Yiddish Radio All-Stars, directed by Henry Sapoznik. Mr. Leess can be heard today on Metropolitan Klezmer’s recently released CD "Surprising Finds."

Bandleader Even Sicular remembered Mr. Leess as a man with a glint in his eye, and echoed many of his colleagues in calling him a conscientious professional.

"He was really a mensch," Sicular said.

Mr. Leess is survived by his wife, two sons and five grandchildren.