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Rifftides: Gene Lees, 1928-2010

May 12th, 2010 | By

This article originally appeared on Doug Ramsey’s Rifftides blog, published by ArtsJournal.com.


Gene Lees. Photograph by John Reeves.

Gene Lees died on April 22. We lost a writer unsurpassed at illuminating music and the world that musicians inhabit. I lost a cherished colleague whose work inspired me, a dear friend whose companionship brightened my existence. For a formal biography, see his entry in The Canadian Encyclopedia. My remarks are more personal.

Gene’s books about Oscar Peterson, Woody Herman, Henry Mancini, Johnny Mercer and Lerner and Lowe are among the finest biographies of our time, regardless of category. He was completing a biography of Artie Shaw. I have read some of the manuscript. It is definitive. The collections of pieces from his invaluable publication Gene Lees’ JazzLetter are essential books for anyone interested in music. The titles indicate his range: Meet Me at Jim and Andy’s, Singers and the Song, Cats of Any Color: Jazz Black and White, You Can’t Steal a Gift: Dizzy, Clark, Milt and Nat, Friends Along the Way: A Journey Through Jazz. Jazz Lives is Gene’s book of essays about 200 musicians from Spiegle Willcox to Christian McBride, illustrated with photographic portraits by John Reeves, who made the one of Gene that you see here.

“Gene wrote like an angel.”

Some of Gene’s lyrics are ingrained in our culture, words to songs by Antonio Carlos Jobim (“Quiet nights of quiet stars, quiet chords from my guitar…”) and Bill Evans (“In her own sweet world, populated by dolls and clowns and a prince and a big purple bear…” and so many others. Gene shared his wordsmith knowledge in The Modern Rhyming Dictionary: How to Write Lyrics. He sang, and sang well, in personal appearances and on records.

Here are a few of the things I wrote about Gene in the foreword to the second edition of Singers and the Song.

Most writing about jazz and popular music, as sophisticated readers recognize with a wince, is done by fans who have become writers. Most are cheer leaders, press agents without portfolio who leave in their wakes evaluations and pronouncements supported by raw opinion and nerve endings. …Gene Lees brings to jazz writing the skills of a trained and experienced journalist. …He was beaten into the shape of a newspaperman by tough editors who demanded accuracy and clear story-telling.

When in 1959 the opportunity came for Lees to become editor of Down Beat, he was mature in journalism and music. He brought to Down Beat a professionalism in coverage, editing, and style and elevated it significantly above its decades as a fan magazine.

Lees founded his JazzLetter in 1981. He has written, edited, and published it with the rigor of an old fashioned-managing editor who enforces high standards of accuracy, clarity and fairness — he once threw out one of his own pieces at press time on grounds of lack of objectivity — and with the passion of an editorial page editor who cares about his community. …Like all good editors, he knows his readers and the community they comprise. He knows that his community is part of the world, and he knows how the two interact.

Gene wrote like an angel. This is the opening of his classic essay, “Pavilion in the Rain.”

On warm summer nights, in that epoch between the wars and before air conditioning, the doors and wide wooden shutters would be open, and the music would drift out of the pavilion over the converging crowds of excited young people, through the parking lot glistening with cars, through the trees, like moons caught in the branches, and sometimes little boys too hung there, observing the general excitement and sharing the sense of an event. And the visit of one of the big bands was indeed an event.

He had strong opinions about everything. We argued. Arguing was half the fun of knowing Lees. Every argument with Gene was a win for me because I had learned from him.

I hope that he wouldn’t mind my adapting his final lines of “Waltz For Debby.”

When he goes they will cry
As they whisper good-bye
They will miss him I know
But then so will I.

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About Doug Ramsey

Doug is a recipient of the lifetime achievement award of the Jazz Journalists Association. He lives in the Pacific Northwest, where he settled following a career in print and broadcast journalism in cities including New York, New Orleans, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, San Antonio, Cleveland and Washington, DC.

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