By Amy Zimmer
DNAinfo News Editor
GRAMERCY PARK — The 99-year-old alto sax player Les Lieber said goodbye to Jazz at Noon on Friday — but promised a return to the weekly jam session he's hosted for 46 years.
He was convinced to return in the fall after fans heard he would be putting down his saxophone and penny whistle and ending what has become a swinging gig for many talented doctors, advertising execs, scientists and other businessmen.
"I did make an announcement I was giving it up," Lieber said. "There was such an uproar, so many people disappointed, I decided I would try to reach our 50th year."
Lieber performed with Paul Whiteman and recorded with the legendary French jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt on Armed Forces Radio in Paris in 1945. He's jammed with Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie.
But music was not his vocation.
He was a magazine writer and editor, penning more than "700 articles from 1945 to 1970" for "This Week" magazine, he said, recounting how he interviewed President Harry Truman in Kansas and asked him why he dropped the atom bomb.
Lieber started the Jazz at Noon series for other skilled musicians busy with careers.
"I wondered why there was no opportunity for businessmen who were good players," Lieber said. "We started Jazz at Noon on a Monday. It was only moderately successful, but we were on the front page of the New York Times and the Herald Tribune the next day."
Seeing presidents of companies improvising on stage at its first venue on East 53rd Street and Third Avenue was a "novel idea," Lieber said.
"Our guys are no slouches. They could have been professional, but they got good jobs doing other things."
The crowd grew once they moved Jazz at Noon to Fridays when "people got paid," Lieber said.
"The whole concept is avocation," said George De Leon, 80, a tenor sax player, who has been performing with the group for 15 years.
De Leon, a psychologist who founded the Phoenix House treatment center for drug addicts, said, "The first love of my life was playing."
Over the years, the number of businessmen musicians hoping to swap choruses dwindled.
"We used to have 75 people who would come play," Lieber said. "They gradually drifted off, retired and went to Florida or died."
The event venue hopped, taking residence in at least 20 clubs over the decades.
Before moving into the Players Club on 16 Gramercy Park in November, it spent more than three years next door at the National Arts Club. It had to leave because of "internal problems," Lieber said. That institution is currently being investigated by the Attorney General and Manhattan District Attorney for financial mismanagement.
Lieber, his band mates and special guest, Warren Chiasson, one of the world's top vibraphonists, played to a packed house on Friday.
Lieber hadn't seen such a crowd in a while — which is why he was planning to stop playing.
"Your enthusiasm is irresistible," he told the audience. "Any doubt I had that we'd give up after 45 years has dissipated, has gone up in blue smoke."
Chiasson has been a guest player with the Jazz at Noon crew since the 1970s, an era when he was touring with the singer Roberta Flack.
"They're kind of like a second family to me," said Chiasson, who's happy the jams will continue.
"The man is 99 years old," he said of Lieber. "He's still playing in tune. He's still dapper and tells a good story. I'm delighted to be part of it."