Gene Lees (1928-2010), a prolific jazz book author, biographer, critic, magazine writer, newsletter publisher, composer and lyricist whose emotional writing style set him apart from many of his peers, died April 22nd at his home in Ojai, CA. He was 82.
Though trained as a newspaperman, Gene wasn't a jazz journalist in the traditional sense and never really considered himself one. Instead, Gene was more accurately a poet-storyteller whose close personal relationships with jazz musicians and his incisive understanding of the creative mind gave him an enormous edge. Like many jazz writers of his generation, Gene was a literary impressionist and a generous raconteur who sought to provide jazz fans with a finer understanding of a world they thought they knew.
Gene was a passionate romantic, but he never romanticized his subjects. He loved jazz but deftly avoided glamorizing or selling the music or musicians to readers. Instead, Gene’s books (such as Meet Me at Jim and Andy’s, Cats of Any Color, or Waiting for Dizzy) and his newsletter (Jazzletter) were deeply moving personal works that were packed with authoritative detail and insights. Gene's passion was infectious, often sending readers to record stores to learn more.
If Gene's contribution to jazz had been merely authoring more than 10 books, his legacy would be intact. But Gene also was a solid composer and celebrated lyricist. He wrote the words to Antonio Carlos Jobim’s [pictured] Corcovado, Song of the Jet and The Dreamer as well as Bill Evans’ Waltz for Debby. Gene was close with Evans, rooming with him in New York on West End Avenue in the early 1960s. Gene’s liner notes to Bill Evans: The Solo Sessions (Vol. 2), written after the pianist's death, remain among the most harrowing about the troubled musician.
I spoke with Gene by telephone from time to time since the late 1990s and as recently as a few months ago. At the end of each conversation, I would ask him the same nagging question: "When are you going to write your Bill Evans memoir?" A pause and sigh on Gene's end would follow. "I should, but it's just too painful a period," Gene would say about the years he spent with Evans trying to get him to kick his drug habit.
Gene will be missed by all jazz writers who struggle to strike the right balance between adoration and reportage. And hopefully somewhere in Gene’s home is that Bill Evans manuscript.
Here's Bill Evans playing Yesterday I Heard the Rain, which was composed by Armando Manzanero with words by Gene Lees—but the music always reminds me of Gene...
Johnny Mandel. I caught up with composer-arranger Johnny Mandel last week by phone. He's excited about his upcoming three-night New York appearance at Jazz at Lincoln Center in May. He will be conducting the DIVA Jazz Orchestra headed by drummer Sherrie Maricle. The big band will be performing Johnny's compositions and arrangements. The gig will be recorded by Arbors Records. Go here to learn more about the JALC event and for ticket information.
Dexter Gordon. Maxine Gordon, Dexter Gordon's wife, has started a blog about the late tenor saxophonist. To view the blog and Maxine's most recent entry on the Library of Congress' acquisition of Gordon's personal recordings, go here.Johnny Pate. The great bassist and arranger has his own site, Pate's Place, where you'll find information about him as well as sound clips of his recordings. Go here.
"Marc Myers' JazzWax blog is worlds beyond anything the ubiquitous Leonard Feather or the unfortunate James Lincoln Collier ever brought to the jazz history table."
Wow, those are big shoes. I'm humbled. By the way, if you're unfamiliar with Raymond's 'Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris, buy it here or rent it from Netflix. To me, it's still one of the finest jazz documentaries ever made.
To read Raymond's Salon column, go here.
CD discoveries of the week: Good big bands are rare these days for obvious reasons. They're prohibitively expensive and it's hard to get the same players to show up for rehearsals. Earl MacDonald has found a magic formula on his new CD Re: Visions: Works for Jazz Orchestra. MacDonald, director of jazz studies at the University of Connecticut, wrote six of the nine tracks and arranged them all. In 2002, he won the Sammy Nestico Award for outstanding big band arranging, and it's easy to hear why. Every single track has been carefully thought out and there's zero rambling or solo padding. Just smart, economical writing and fabulous blowing. I'm a big fan of Mr. Sunshine and Joshua. You'll find Re: Visions (Death Defying) here.
Ellen Rowe is no wallflower. On her new CD, Wishing Well, the pianist plays with firm resolve and determination. Tracks like the uptempo Tick Tock and the reflective Night Sounds (dedicated to her late brother Tim) are prerfect examples of Rowe's solid touch and originality. The more I listened to her CD, the more I was curious about where her musical tenacity and strength comes from. Flipping over her bio, I noticed Rowe is a marathon runner and mountain climber with a few serious peaks under her belt. You can hear the competitiveness throughout the album, especially when she's joined by Andrew Bishop and Andy Haefner on saxophones. You'll find Wishing Well (PKO) here.
Oddball album cover of the week: I'm not quite sure what Billy May was thinking, but he must have been paid a pretty penny by Capitol to suit up in this El Gran Maestro garb. The album's jazz standards were all given the cha-cha-cha treatment. The last line of the album's liner notes pretty much says it all: "Only the beat has been changed to protect the innocent."