Monday, May 10, 2010

Remembering Gene Lees

"Gene Lees, a multitalented writer who left a lasting mark on jazz as a biographer, opinionated critic and graceful song lyricist, died April 22 at his home in Ojai, CA, after a stroke. He was 82."

-----Matt Schudel, Washington Post

Most will not recognize the name Gene Lees and therefore will not understand that we lost one of our great observers of, and writers about, jazz when Mr. Lees passed away April 22 at the age of 82. Stated briefly, Gene Lees had two great loves: language and music. One would not want to engage Mr. Lees in a conversation about "pop" music. He believed it to be the product of illiterates. On the other hand, Mr. Lees would have been more than happy to talk about jazz, or the Great American Songbook, or even classical music. More importantly, Gene Lees spent his lifetime doing just that, talking (writing) about music. His observations were always those of one with a keen eye and ear. His writing was of a quality that a reader would linger over, savoring the vocabulary and the remarkable turns of phrase. Gene Lees understood the important relationship between language and the ear. This was another aspect of his craft - he was lyricist to music by Jobim, Bill Evans, Lalo Schifrin and others. And he also knew the craft of singing. If you search long and hard you can find recordings of Gene Lees, the singer.

Gene Lees penned numerous books, many of them biographies of musicians he knew and admired: Johnny Mercer, Oscar Peterson, Woody Herman. Dozens more books are filled with his essays and published articles on topics largely to do with musicians, but as far ranging as his essay which contrasts French and English language and culture and their influence on songwriting. That's where I started years ago, with a collection called Singers and the Song. At that time I was a student of (and still am) Alec Wilder's essential American Popular Song: The Great Innovators. A friend recommended Lees' Singers and the Song as an accompaniment to the Wilder. From the moment I cracked open Singers I was hooked on the highly crafted writing and observation of Gene Lees.

In 2004, I set out to write and produce (with Kathy Couser) a 7-part series called The Art of American Popular Song, inspired largely by Wilder's book on the topic. As we lined up numerous contributors and guests, a friend encouraged me to include Gene Lees in the lineup. Great, I thought, if I can only find a way to contact him. In fact, I had no luck in tracking him down. It was only through some sort of devine intervention that my friend made some inquiries and phone calls, yielding contact information for Mr. Lees. I was ecstatic when he agreed to be interviewed.

Please take time to play the several portions of my interview which are provided here as a remembrance of Gene Lees. These extracts are taken from within the context of the program and find Mr. Lees remembering Alec Wilder, Frank Sinatra and Harold Arlen. And please take the time to read some of Gene Lees marvelous books and essays. His writing, rigorous but oh so lyric, is all too uncommon these days. ----James Baker

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