A Eulogy for Leslie Bassett
McEver Road United Methodist Church
2:00 pm Saturday, February 13, 2016
Good afternoon. It is an honor to speak to you today about the life of Leslie Bassett.
My name is John Anthony Lennon. I was a student of Professor Bassett’s and one who came to know him as a friend when he retired in north Georgia to be close to his family. I hope to speak today in the name of his many grateful and admiring students who are now placed in universities and institutions across America and abroad.
Leslie came to the University of Michigan in 1951 where he completed his graduate education under Ross Lee Finney. His acute intellect and musical ear were recognized as extraordinary. When he graduated, he was invited to join the faculty and soon earned a world renowned reputation in concert art music. His music remains at the forefront of modernist composers today. The works he composed will endure and be performed for generations in the future. What a pleasure it was to know a mind like this and have him as teacher.
I met Leslie Bassett in Ann Arbor in 1972. He changed my life forever. Like Leslie, I came from California in hopes of studying at the University of Michigan. We both shared a love for modern music. We both had a background in performing popular forms of music; he as a trombonist and I as a guitarist. I was 22 years old then, recently a graduate from the University of San Francisco, a small Jesuit school where I studied literature and philosophy and took courses in music at the women’s Lone Mountain college near by. In Ann Arbor, I showed Leslie my hand written modernist scores in pencil. To my delight, he took an interest in the potential of the music and later I learned that he supported my application to the graduate composition program.
As many of you know, Leslie was a man of keen perception with a sharp, terse wit. I observed this in my weekly composition lessons with him in the School of Music. In his tidy office his many music scores and recordings were organized in a large file cabinet. On the walls there was evidence of the many awards he had earned. He had an architect’s table where we spread music out to discuss, and close by a grand piano where ideas could be demonstrated. Leslie was like a chess master; he could look at your notes and in an instant see what the implications were, what problems would arise, and how the music could be made better. He might say a particular clarinet note was “a loser,” that a melodic line was “pedestrian” or that a passage suffered from “rhythmic poverty.” For me, this was exactly what I needed so that I could grow as a composer. The critiques could be pointed, excuses not accepted, but these moments were balanced by compliments and an understanding that Leslie truly cared about me and my youthful aspirations.
Outside of the composition studio there were social gatherings at the Bassetts’ home on Harbal Drive, outings to share meals and concerts with him, or to travel to places like Oberlin, Ohio for a composer’s symposium. To be seated near Leslie on these occasions and have his attention was the envy of the graduate students. We all vied for that honor. And Leslie enjoyed every moment being with the student composers and hearing their ideas.
By 1977 Leslie Bassett had become my doctoral dissertation advisor. That year I left Ann Arbor to take my first teaching position. We remained in touch through letters and phone conversations. His support for me continued with the many recommendations he wrote and calls he placed on my behalf. During the following years I was able to live in Italy, France and Germany on the same fellowships that he had benefited from. His publisher, C.F. Peters, became my publisher, the recording companies that produced his music accepted my music as well. My experience was similar to so many of the talented students who came to Ann Arbor to work with Leslie.
In 2004 Leslie and Anita moved to Flowery Branch, Georgia to be near their daughter Wendy. By then I was a professor of composition and theory at Emory University in Atlanta, a position Leslie had recommended me for in 1994. This change of location allowed me and my wife Camille to visit Leslie and Anita over the next twelve years. Often we had lunch at the Crossroads Restaurant in Flowery Branch, or visited other spots like Aqualand to eat al fresco by Lake Lanier. We visited with the Bassetts at Wendy and Richard’s home and took part in their meals and play readings with their friends. There were concerts of Leslie’s or my music that we were able to attend together. Even then, Leslie offered suggestions to better my compositions. I listened carefully. In their home, Anita would inevitably gravitate to the piano and play music from Broadway plays and Hollywood films. During this period, these were the sounds that rang in the Bassetts’ home I will remember. The image remains with me of Anita often sitting in Leslie’s lap at the end of a visit Camille and I had made. With the affection of newlyweds, Leslie would call Anita “Doll” and she would call him “L.B.” as they cuddled together.
By this time, Leslie and Anita were treasured friends of 43 years. I knew of the soaring heights of the successes in their lives and also the heartbreaking tragedies they endured along the way. And endure they did with goodness and grace. I learned from this as much as I did about composition.
Today Leslie still teaches me. His words continue to echo – how to be a better composer, a better professor and a better gentleman. Not long before he passed away, he spoke about how music rings in eternity. Leslie believed he would hear his music again, and I believe he is right. After all, when it came to music, I knew him to be invariable correct! This was the last lesson he voiced to me.
Leslie Bassett passed from this earth on Thursday, February 4th after a life that meant so much to so many. I hope he hears his music played now with this son Ralph by his side along with his brother Earle, and his beloved parents. On this earth his music remains for us. The sounds of his soul will keep us in touch with his eternal spirit.
God bless the soul of Leslie Bassett!
John Anthony Lennon
A post script. On Friday February 26th Anita Bassett passed from this world. It was only three weeks and a day after losing her husband of 66 years. I visited Anita during those last days when she longed for Leslie and asked about him. I will remember her as she always was – a wonderful human being, matriarch of a grand family, gifted in the arts, beautiful with dramatic hair and aquiline features, and she possessed the most beautiful smile. Anita has touched so many in so many good ways. I am blessed to have known her. May she rest in peace with Leslie.