Les Baxter, by Skip Heller
I was privileged to have known Les Baxter, and honored that he thought of me as a close friend. He was a completely unique musical mind, and in every way a singular man. I had never met anyone like him, and have not since. His death in January, 1996, robbed music of a one-of-kind composer, and robbed me personally of an irreplaceable friend, whose spirit and memory have stayed with me, as have the musical lessons he was so generous to teach.The picture of the Complete Les Baxter begins, for me, with a Hagspiel baby grand piano. To see Les play this instrument was to see him at his most regal.It was there he would sight-read the piano music of Maurice Ravel, play bits of his own compositions, or — on a very lucky day — improvise thematically on an old standard song such as “Stardust” or “Darn That Dream”.
His Palm Springs house did not look it, but it was a place of music. Les would sit out by the pool, his dog Blondie at his feet, recalling all sorts of musical memories — memories of Louis Armstrong, of making exotica, of going to Brazil and hearing the carnival drummers.Les was born in 1921 in Mexia,Texas (birthplace of Anna Nicole Smith), and spent part of his childhood in Detroit, where he attended the local conservatory and was considered something of a prodigy. He appears to have been fluent at an early age on piano and most woodwinds. I have seen a picture of him as a child where he is playing either a soprano saxophone or a metal clarinet. I never heard him speak of his father nor of any brothers or sisters, but apparently his mother was a wonderfully encouraging woman who saw the spark of music in her boy.
By the time he was in his teens, he was working in California in various dance bands as a tenor saxophonist and arranger, and also attending Pepperdine University as a music student.Les was very much a product of the Big Band Era. He counted legendary tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins as a personal hero. This is typical of any young saxophonist of the period — Hawkins was a huge force on his instrument, and his 1939 Victor recording of “Body And Soul” was the Rosetta Stone of saxophone up to that time.
Les knew and loved that record, and I can still recall him sitting by his swimming pool in November 1994, singing Hawkins’ solo.
Les worship of Hawkins was supplanted by his hearing Ben Webster — Duke Ellington’s featured tenor saxophonist of 1939-41. note-for-note.Webster was bluesier and had a darker, gauzier tone. He was the Barry White of tenor. Les spoke often and rapturously about seeing the Ellington band during that period, and was influenced deeply by what he heard.
Also, he got to know many of the Ellingtonians on a personal friendship level, giants such as Tricky Sam Nanton, Johnny Hodges, Billy Strayhorn, Jimmy Hamilton, and, of course, clarinetist Barney Bigard.