The Billy Lester Story: The Great Reclusive Jazz Pianist Jazz Night shines a light on the reclusive 74-year-old pianist Billy Lester. Lester has spent his whole life in Yonkers, N.Y. We hear his story and listen back to a trio set recorded in 2019.
NPR logo Lost (And Found) In Yonkers: The Billy Lester Story

Lost (And Found) In Yonkers: The Billy Lester Story

Lost (And Found) In Yonkers: The Billy Lester Story

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Anna Yatskevich /Courtesy of Newvelle Records
Pianist Billy Lester.
Anna Yatskevich /Courtesy of Newvelle Records

Public acknowledgment took its time finding Billy Lester. A pianist devoted to searching for a new form of modern jazz, he spent more than half a century on the outskirts of New York City, quietly honing his craft. "I just figured I'd go to my grave without any kind of recognition," he says plainly, "and I was at the point in my life where I totally accepted that."

The situation changed only a few years ago when Lester was in his early 70s. A chance encounter led to an acclaimed album on the boutique Newvelle record label, which he made with the impeccable rhythm team of Rufus Reid on bass and Matt Wilson on drums. And in the fall of 2019, this trio played two sets to a packed house at the Jazz Standard — Lester's long-overdue debut in a New York City jazz club, and an absolute triumph at that.

This show features highlights from that special evening, which also poses a question: how did the spotlight elude this fine pianist for so long, and why? We'll get to know Lester as a person, and we'll see how his ascetic profile and purist instinct extend a tradition modeled by his mentor, the late Sal Mosca, who in turn learned from the groundbreaking jazz modernist Lennie Tristano. The spirit of discovery so prized by Tristano's disciples is ever-present in the music of Billy Lester — and we're proud to let you in on the secret.

Musicians

Billy Lester, piano; Rufus Reid, bass; Matt Wilson, drums.

Set List

  • "What is This Thing Called Love?" (Cole Porter)
  • "All The Things You Are" (Jerome Kern / Oscar Hammerstein II)
  • "These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)" (Jack Strachey / Eric Maschwitz)
  • "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To" (Cole Porter)
  • "(Back Home Again in) Indiana" (Ballard MacDonald / James F. Hanley)

Credits

Writer and Producer: Alex Ariff; Contributing Producer: Nate Chinen; Host: Christian McBride; Music Engineer: Rocky Russo; Project Manager: Suraya Mohamed; Technical Director: David Tallacksen; Senior Producer: Katie Simon; Executive Producers: Anya Grundmann and Gabrielle Armand; Senior Director of NPR Music: Lauren Onkey.


Stream Jazz Night In America's playlist on Spotify, updated regularly.