A portrait of a jazz pianist as a rolling stone

Jim Lester's global life settles in, for now


September 22, 2006|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,Special to The Sun

James T. Lester was a psychologist in Beverly Hills. He climbed Mount Everest. He traveled throughout the Caribbean and Central America during two years in the Peace Corps.

The globetrotting free spirit, who is known as Jim professionally, has settled down in Annapolis - on the stool of a piano.

At two recent gigs, with Brooks Tegler's Little Big Band at Loews Powerhouse and as part of a trio with bassist Joe Byrd and saxophonist Larry Prascus at 49 West Coffeehouse, Winebar and Gallery, Lester showed grace.

He has a rare ability to move from a single note to block chords in the manner of legendary pianist George Shearing.

At the August jam session at 49 West, Lester deftly created a mellow mood with Byrd and Prascus in a Duke Ellington set of "Take the A Train," "What Am I Here For?" and "Mood Indigo."

Between sets, Lester moved from conversing in jazz to chatting affably about where life has taken him.

With a carpe diem mentality, he has touched more bases than most of us dream of.

Lester's education at Northwestern University was interrupted by a year in the Army, where he found a niche as a musician playing piano in a small group and trombone in a big band.

After earning a Ph.D. in psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles, he taught at military bases in Munich for two years then headed to Beverly Hills for five years.

In 1964, Lester jumped at the chance to do psychological research on stress among Mount Everest mountain climbers. He climbed to 21,500 feet and stayed there for a month.

After the expedition, he married a European who was a Pam Am flight attendant and settled in the Los Angeles area for three years.

Next came a move to St. Croix in the Virgin Islands for a Peace Corps Training Center stint as a selection officer, a job that involved trips through the Caribbean and to South America and Africa.

Lester served three years as department chairman at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts, then moved to London to report on scientific developments in psychology in Europe for the U.S. Office of Naval Research.

After a few more turns in the road, Lester wound up in 1984 managing ONR programs in Washington. He retired in 1988.

Sixteen years ago he and his wife, Valerie, moved to Annapolis, where both have pursued writing careers; she has published two books, and he has written a biography of pianist Art Tatum, Too Marvelous For Words.

The 70-something writer/researcher and photographer seems foremost a musician who is available as a trombonist - and as a pianist.

Lester's fascinating life experiences can be heard in his music. His keyboard artistry reflects the casual sophistication of a life well lived.

At times he seems to play two wonderfully compatible tunes in counterpoint, weaving them into an intriguing whole.

His trick of occasionally dropping end notes in a kind of musical shorthand forces those fixated with lyrics to supply them silently.

Lester prefers accompanying singers, which requires special talent. Sharing a singer's remark that admittedly pleased him "mightily," Lester recalled that vocalist Teresa Seise said of his accompanying her: "To me your playing is like Fred Astaire's dancing." His response: "I want that on my gravestone."

Lester has also composed a few songs. One called "Swan Song" struck me as uniquely attractive. He also knows how to arrange music.

"Jim supplied 22 to 23 arrangements for the successful `Girls Singers Show saluting Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney and Peggy Lee' that we did at Towson University this summer," said jazz impresario John Tegler.

Tegler has also engaged Lester as musical director for segments during the celebration Sunday of Severna Park's centennial.

This free event will be held at Severna Park Elementary School from noon until about 6 p.m. with a lineup that includes the U.S. Army Jazz Ambassadors, a vintage fashion show with period dance demonstrations and the recreation of a Bob Hope 1940s radio show.

For more information, call Betty Winkelmeyer Wells at 410-647-6452.

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