Pianist Billy Lester is a late-bloomer on that reticent branch of the jazz tree, the school of Lennie Tristano.
An instinctively lyrical yet unfettered improviser who creates original compositions from variations on classic American songs' chord changes, Lester -- like his mentor Sal Mosca, one of Tristano's most acclaimed students -- has developed his art almost in private. A youthful prodigy who was playing by age four, the soft-spoken, self-questioning Lester has taught piano for decades in his hometown of Yonkers just beyond New York City's limits, and devotes himself to family life. But with children now grown, at age 52 he's felt the yen to gig, and finds the public stage surprisingly rewarding.
"When I was in my 20s, the heavy action was towards Bill Evans, Miles Davis and John Coltrane," says Lester, whose albums Captivatin' Rhythm and At Liberty are both on the small but sturdy Connecticut-based Zinnia label. "The people with whom I was hanging, students of Tristano's or Sal's, got together for sessions, but nobody had gigs. And I wasn't the kind of person who was going to be out at clubs all night. I met my wife when I was 23, we got married two years later and had a kid three years later. I couldn't see having to earn a living performing jazz. It was just so sketchy.
"I didn't take myself terribly seriously then, either," he says ruefully. "I thought of myself as struggling to learn how to play." To support his family, he worked part-time in his father's tire store and eventually attracted private piano students. "It wasn't lucrative, or glamorous," Lester concedes of his career choice, "but a little more secure." He didn't pursue gigs, but lucked into a few -- most notably a concert at the Heinekin fest in Amsterdam in 1984, and subsequent Dutch tours in '85 and '88. "I would have pursued touring more," he claims, "but each time I lost money, which makes it a tough thing to pursue." Today Lester has some 40 students, and teaches a course on American popular song at Lehman College.
It wasn't that Lester wasn't against Bill Evans, Miles and Coltrane (or Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, and Keith Jarrett) during his formative years, but rather that he found modal improvisation empty and preferred Bud Powell, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Charlie Christian, Roy Eldridge and especially Louis Armstrong, enthusiasms shared by Mosca, who he regards as "much more than just my teacher."