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Jack Lis, 75, Niagara-Wheatfield music teacher led bands for stars at Melody Fair

May 27, 1943 – March 24, 2019

Jack Lis was a band leader for the stars every summer for a decade, from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s.

As music contractor for Melody Fair, the seasonal theater in the round in North Tonawanda’s Wurlitzer Park, he assembled everything from small combos to large orchestras for the visiting artists, who often played weeklong engagements on the revolving stage.

“They would tell him what musicians they wanted, how many saxophones, how many trombones,” his wife, Kathy, said. “He worked for many, many stars – Perry Como, Tony Bennett, Kay Starr, Engelbert Humperdinck.”

“Those years were the best years of my music career,” Mr. Lis wrote in an internet posting in 2010. “Backing up all those stars was such great fun for many of us.”

He also had a long career as a music teacher at Niagara-Wheatfield High School and Niagara County Community College.

He died March 24 in Venice, Fla., after a short illness. He was 75.

Born John T. Lis in North Tonawanda, he was a 1961 graduate of North Tonawanda High School. A saxophone and clarinet player, he won an award in 1961 as an outstanding musician and appeared with his jazz quartet that year on national television on Ted Mack’s “Original Amateur Hour.”

“He could play anything,” said his wife, who started dating him in high school. “He just knew the songs by heart.”

He began studying music at the University of Buffalo, then transferred to Fredonia State College, graduating in 1966.

In his senior year, he won a championship award at the Mobile Jazz Festival in Alabama, performing with the college’s dance band, which was crowned the festival’s most outstanding band.

He began teaching instrumental music and music theory at Niagara-Wheatfield in January 1967, where he established the jazz program and formed the jazz ensemble. He retired in 2000.

For several years, he also taught part time at NCCC and started the college’s jazz ensemble.

At the beginning of his teaching career, he went on the road with jazz bands but preferred to be home with his family, his wife said. He assembled bands to play weddings and special events, such as the Kootsie Ball. He also led a polka band, J.K.’s Orchestra, which recorded a CD, and led a band in Sarasota, Fla.

In addition to his work at Melody Fair, he was music contractor for the Niagara Falls Convention Center after it opened in the 1970s and music contractor for Seneca Niagara Casino in the early 2000s.

He was a member of the American Federation of Musicians, Locals 106 and 209; the New York State School Music Association; the Music Educators National Conference; and the International Association of Jazz Educators. He also was former president of the Niagara County Music Teachers Association.

He and the former Kathleen Schweichler, a teacher and day care center director, were married in 1966.

Longtime residents of North Tonawanda, they maintained a summer home in Ashville near Chautauqua Lake since 1991 and had wintered in Nokomis, Fla., near Venice, since 2006.

For many years, Mr. Lis was an avid Niagara River fisherman and later fished Chautauqua Lake. He also was a hunter and in Florida took up making stained glass items.

In addition to his wife, survivors include a son, Allen; a daughter, Shelly Hoerner; and three grandchildren.

Funeral services were held in Florida.

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