Donald Munro

Remembering Leslie Bassett, a Fresno State Pulitzer Prize-winner

A photograph of Leslie Bassett, a 1947 Fresno State graduate who in 1966 won the Pulitzer Prize in composition for “Variations for Orchestra,” rests atop a collection of his compositions housed in the Music & Media section of the Fresno State Henry Madden Library. Bassett, a Hanford native, died last month at the age of 93.
A photograph of Leslie Bassett, a 1947 Fresno State graduate who in 1966 won the Pulitzer Prize in composition for “Variations for Orchestra,” rests atop a collection of his compositions housed in the Music & Media section of the Fresno State Henry Madden Library. Bassett, a Hanford native, died last month at the age of 93. jwalker@fresnobee.com

The email landed in my inbox last month. It was from Francine Farber, a careful and loyal reader, who got right to the point: “Yesterday’s NY Times had a big obit on composer Leslie Bassett. He was born in Hanford and graduated from Fresno State. He was an international figure. Probably worth a story in the Bee.”

I couldn’t quite place the name, so I looked up the New York Times obituary and passed it along to my editors. The Bee ran it the next day, on Feb. 13.

When I read it, I was fascinated. Talk about a long and intriguing life.

Bassett, 93, whom the Times duly noted grew up in a hog-ranching family, was a Valley boy, for sure. But it was clear early on that farming wasn’t in his future. He played trombone and piano growing up. During World II he served as a trombonist and composer in the United States and Europe in the 13th Armored Division Band.

After the war, he returned to Fresno State for a music degree. He took his 1947 diploma, left for the University of Michigan, famed for its music school, and for the most part never looked back.

His successes as a contemporary classical music composer were many: He won the Rome Prize, one of the most prestigious for composers. In 1966 came the biggie: the Pulitzer Prize for music. His winning piece: the simply titled “Variations for Orchestra,” which is anything but simple.

Fame is complicated. In our pop-culture and politically saturated society, household names vary depending on the household. You can be a rock star within your own specialized circle – the best accordion player in the world, say, or the most cited expert on the microclimates of Spain – and be totally unknown in the larger world. (Once I nabbed a phone interview with Broadway star Carolee Carmello and excitedly tried to tell other people about it. No one else much really cared except my fellow Broadway-loving Facebook friends.)

And fame can be fleeting. A Pulitzer will merit a news obituary in the New York Times, no matter how old you are when you die, but when you live to 93, many of your contemporaries are long gone. Institutional memories can fade, and so can community ones. If Bassett had died young, soon after his Pulitzer, it would have been the talk of the town. (On the occasion of his highest honor, the Bee story on May 3, 1966, proclaimed “Pulitzer Prize in Music Goes to Ex-Fresnan.”)

Fifty years later, memories fade.

Yet tendrils of Bassett’s Fresno fame persist. On a whim, fitting some time in here and there, I decided to follow the trail of a few to see what I could find.

Composer competition

My first Bassett connection is Alex Vavoulis, a retired Fresno State professor who was a longtime president of the Fresno Free College Foundation, a group that will celebrate its 50th anniversary in two years. In talking with Vavoulis, I learn all sorts of fascinating information about the foundation, including that it was founded in 1968 by a group of Fresno State College professors to raise legal funds to defend the academic freedom of poet Robert Mezey, who was fired from his teaching position.

That doesn’t have anything to do with Bassett (but is certainly a story for another time). Later the foundation broadened its mission to support the cultural arts in Fresno.

Here’s the link between the foundation and the composer: From 1978 to 1984, the foundation sponsored a competition for young composers called the David S. Bates Award, named for a Fresno State music professor who died young. For seven years, the award went to a composer under the age of 30.

Jack Fortner, of Fresno State’s music department, was the first reader on the panel of judges. His function was to winnow the entries down to a manageable size, about a dozen. Fortner then sent them on to – here it is, finally – Bassett at the University of Michigan, where he and his composition department colleagues made the final decision.

The winning piece was then played in a Fresno concert by the Orpheus chamber ensemble, a group founded by Fortner that still plays to this day with Fortner as its artistic director.

‘A true gentleman’

Which brings us to a more substantial local Bassett tendril: Fortner himself.

I reach him in Brazil, where he makes his home part of the year.

Bassett and Fortner both studied at Michigan, and they became colleagues there teaching composition. After five years, Fortner taught there five years before “the lure of sun and beaches became irresistible.” The fact that Bassett went to Fresno State didn’t influence Fortner’s decision, he says.

Fortner remembers Bassett as a “fantastic musician,” someone who could read scores immediately. He also had perfect pitch, which worked to his disadvantage when it came to electronic music in a studio. There, pitch is a continuum and constantly variable. Bassett would lose his perfect pitch in the studio, which was disturbing to him, Fortner says.

What was Bassett like as a person? The pictures I see of him seem pretty straight-laced. Then again, we’re talking about old photos.

“He was a true gentleman: very proper and always a little reserved,” Fortner says. “However, he did appreciate the funnier side of life. He was a devout Lutheran and not inclined to go out and party with the boys.”

Bassett wasn’t exactly a constant Fresno presence. I know he did come back to Hanford, because a Bee story in 1966 mentions an interview with him at his father’s home.

He came back sometimes in an official capacity – he was a resident composer at the 2000 California State University Summer Arts program, held at the campus – but “in truth, he did not visit Fresno very often,” Fortner says.

As for his musicality, it was there in abundance. I learn that Bassett was an excellent trombonist until he contracted cancer of the jaw. The surgery removed the left side of his jawbone and ended his trombone playing. He then took up the cello and became a competent player.

“This is talent!” Fortner tells me.

A ‘grandson’ by lineage

I next talk to Benjamin Boone, who teaches composition at Fresno State and is well known for the jazz quartet bearing his name, his pre-concert lectures for the Fresno Philharmonic and his involvement in community cultural events. (He just finished a gig at the Rogue Festival.)

It turns out that Bassett is Boone’s “musical grandfather.”

Let me explain that: Boone’s primary composition teacher at the University of Tennessee was John Anthony Lennon, a pillar in the field. And who taught Lennon?

Leslie Bassett.

“In retrospect, it’s ironic that I’m here at Fresno State where my musical grandfather ended up getting his musical education,” Boone says.

Bassett was a product of his times – Fortner calls him a stylistic “child of the 1950s” – but he brought a sense of humanity and warmth to music that is often seen today as being overly cold and mathematical.

In a time of when 12-tone technique and serialism was the rage, in which listeners had to fight to find something tonal onto which they could latch, Bassett was freer with his sounds than most other composers, Boone says. Yes, Bassett was a member of that club, but he also let himself be guided by intuition and an emotional arc, not strictly mathematics.

“When you listen to his piece that won the Pulitzer Prize, you don’t really hear melodies – you hear all these colors, something that almost sounds like a movie score.

Through his teacher, Boone was introduced to Bassett, who took an interest in Boone’s music, in particular a piece he wrote about 9/11, writing a meaningful and encouraging critique.

In fact, just a week before Bassett died, Boone had sent off another package of music to him for perusal. It was too late.

A legacy

Finally, I want to find some tangible evidence of Bassett in Fresno, something beyond memories and YouTube videos. I head to the Fresno State music and media library, located within the larger Madden Library, where an accommodating Terry Lewis – a theater name I’ve written about for years, but this time in his professional capacity – helps me. The library has 64 scores and more than a dozen recordings of Bassett’s works. He’s grabbed a few and laid them out on a table for me to peruse.

The library collected his work specially over the years knowing of Bassett’s roots. He’s the only Fresno State graduate to win a Pulitzer Prize in music, Fortner says.

The university certainly didn’t forget those roots, either. He received a distinguished alumnus award in 1978. In 2009 he was awarded an honorary doctorate in fine arts degree for his musical accomplishments.

Bassett was a prolific composer, writing in so many genres – everything from concert band and orchestra to oratorios and chamber music – that Lewis has to run around gathering materials from different parts of the music library.

What an impressive life’s work.

Born in Hanford, educated in Fresno, a composer for the world. Mr. Bassett lived such a long and full life, perhaps so long that some might have forgotten him.

But the wonderful thing about music is that the story goes on.

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