Chuck Lester is a working man. By “working,” he doesn’t mean that he is a carpenter or a teacher or a baker—though in his 60-odd years he has been all of those things. He means that he is a musician, a man who has been in love with music since he was a 6-year-old singing the blues in his parents’ living room in Pittsburgh. When Lester says he “works,” he means only one thing: playing his music on stage.
He uses the word a lot. “We’re going to work,” he says about his new jazz band, The Chuck Lester Group, half of which (for logistical reasons) is debuting at The Raven Café this Friday. He’s sipping a mandarin on the rocks at Charlie B’s. “We’re going to be a working band,” he says. “I would like to record, but that’s OK. I like to work.”
The distinction between “recording” and “working” being, for Lester, that “recording” takes music into the corporate world of money-making and product-pushing, while “working” preserves an aesthetic he remembers fondly: the Bob Dylan/Richie Havens coffee-house world of Greenwich Village in the ’60s, when “people were doing the music because they loved it, not because they had to pay their rent.”
“I grew up in an era where in order for you to be classified as a musician you had to pay your dues,” he says. “And that’s a cliché that means you had to work. On the stage. Not in the studio, not in your bathroom, not in your living room. On a stage. And that’s what we’re doing.”
The Chuck Lester Group is the first band Lester has put together in 30 years. Not that he ever stopped singing in all that time; “I just stopped doing it on stage,” he says. When “the best band I ever had in my life, The Gutbucket Blues Band,” broke up in the early ’70s, “it broke my heart,” he says. “And I quit. I got married.” He pauses for a second, touching the rim of his drink. “But it was more complex than that.”
Then he explains that he was playing at a Manhattan club called the Cheetah one night, when the booking agent “gave me an offer. She was on her way to Motown, and she wanted me to leave New York and go sign a contract. But she was very cold. Corporate-cold. What she came to me with was, ‘Do you want to be a product?’ And, no, I do not want to be a product. So I quit the music business.”
In fact, Lester was dabbling in the hypnotherapy business when he left New York for Missoula two years ago. Post 9/11, he and fellow Chuck Lester Group member (and Montana native) Patrick Campbell came to Missoula to start their own hypnotherapy weight-loss company—but instead, Lester wandered into The Top Hat. There he met blues band Hog Wild, and anyone who caught one of their shows during Lester’s eight-month stint with them knows what happened next: Hog Wild bass player Norman Medley called Lester up on stage to sing a couple numbers, “and after everybody heard me,” says Lester, “they said, ‘Man, you have got to work.’”
Lester has been back onstage ever since. In two years, he’s had time to size up Missoula’s music scene, and one thing he’s found missing is jazz. “We have the University,” he says, “and we have a large contingent of people in the 20 to 30 age range, but jazz is not really…being pushed on the radio stations, so that the group of people who are going to college now are not into jazz. There are always people who listen, but they are not really into jazz.”
So how does he see himself getting us into jazz?
“I’m the man that kicks over the rock,” he says. “The idea behind kicking over the rock being that I want to uncover things that maybe haven’t been uncovered yet, because there are some things that need to be brought back to life. They were good things, like jazz. There’s a good part of our culture that I think has been sadly neglected, and I think we need to go back. In order to be hip and cool, we kind of said everything that is old is bad, but that’s not true.”
Lester has found a group of seasoned musicians to help him breathe jazz into Missoula. Fourteen-year cello veteran Sharon Fuller, classically-trained guitarist Bill Day and drummer-since-childhood Patrick Campbell join Lester in The Chuck Lester Group, which Lester hopes will hit the road in earnest mid-summer.
“We’re ready,” he says. “The jazz music we’re doing is not your everyday jazz music. We’re doing songs that people don’t usually do, and I’m doing the classics, too. And some Broadway.” He nods. “It’ll be pretty exciting,” he says. “It won’t be dull. I’m not a dull entertainer.”
After an hour of listening to Lester’s storytelling, you want to tell him such a promise is unnecessary. But asked what his hopes are for The Chuck Lester Group, Lester has one more story still:
“There was a moment with the Gutbucket Blues Band,” he says. “We were playing at a place on the Lower East Side that no longer exists, and we were doing ‘If I Were a Carpenter,’ and what I did is I took the drummer off the drums and put him on the vibes. And the song—I wish we had it recorded. The song was impeccable. It was superb. I never forgot that moment. It was the kind of moment where everybody in the bar stopped. They stopped drinking. They stopped talking.”
Lester stops, too, to touch that rim of his drink again. He nods. “One of the things you learn as you get older,” he says, “is that there are moments. You can’t live that. You can’t have that all the time. But those moments are what you live for.”
Chuck Lester and Bill Day, half of The Chuck Lester Group, will work this Friday, May 21, at The Raven, from 6 to 9 PM. Free.