Sunday, April 25, 2010

Writer Gene Lees tells his last tale

Jazz is greatest when it tells a story. On Thursday, the world of jazz lost one of its story tellers, Gene Lees. Mr. Lees didn't play jazz, but he wrote about it. Here's a portion of an appreciation from the Washington Post:

He wrote biographies of bandleader Woody Herman, Mercer and the composing team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe and was the co-author of Henry Mancini's autobiography. At the time of his death, Mr. Lees had almost completed a biography of Shaw.

Lees wrote about jazz as it was in the world in which it found itself (and does to some extent today):

Mr. Lees also wrote a biography of pianist Oscar Peterson, a fellow Canadian. After making headlines in the 1950s with an article detailing how a white barber refused to cut Peterson's hair, Mr. Lees often wrote about matters of race, sometimes in unexpected and challenging ways. His 2001 book, "You Can't Steal a Gift," assessed the racial burden faced by black musicians Nat "King" Cole, Gillespie, Milt Hinton and Clark Terry.

"These guys all had reason to be bitter and were not," Mr. Lees wrote. "That is a triumph of the human spirit."

Lees wrote lyrics to jazz melodies, as well, some of which have become standards. Here's Matt Shreudle of the Washington Post:
Lees wrote some memorable lyrics of his own, most notably with Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim. Here are the haunting opening lines [to  Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars, or Corcavado]:

Quiet nights of quiet stars,
Quiet chords from my guitar,
Floating on the silence
That surrounds us.

Lees wrote the lyrics to one of my favorite jazz melodies, pianist Bill Evans' wistful Waltz For Debby. I was fortunate to hear Mr. Evans in person at the Village Vanguard a few months before his death in 1980.
Someday all too soon
She'll grow up and she'll leave her dolls
and her prince and that silly old bear.
When she goes they will cry
As she whispers, "Good-bye."
They will miss her, I fear,
But then so will I.

Gene Lees' books currently available at Amazon: here.

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