By PETER KEEPNEWS at The New York Times
Published: April 26, 2010
Gene Lees, a prolific jazz critic and historian who approached his subject with a journalist’s rigor and an insider’s understanding, died on Thursday at his home in Ojai, Calif. He was 82.
The apparent cause was a stroke, said Leslie A. Westbrook, a family spokeswoman.
The author of numerous books, Mr. Lees was not just an observer of the music scene, he was also a participant.
He was an accomplished lyricist whose credits included “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars,” the English-language lyric for Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Corcovado,” which was recorded by Frank Sinatra, Astrud Gilberto and many others. He was also a vocalist, with several albums to his credit.
That experience, and the friendships he built over the years with musicians, singers and songwriters, informed the project that had been his primary focus since 1981: publishing (monthly at first, later at irregular intervals) the subscription-only Gene Lees Ad Libitum Jazzletter, mostly as an outlet for his own biographical and historical essays.
“The beauty of this thing,” Mr. Lees said of his journal in an interview in The New York Times in 1987, “is that it has permitted me to write what I want to write, not what editors want me to write. And the beauty of it for the other contributors is that they’ve got total freedom. No money, but total freedom.”
The Jazzletter, published out of Mr. Lees’s house, carried no advertising, and its circulation was small, although it included readers whose names any jazz fan would recognize. He initially financed it with income from his book “The Modern Rhyming Dictionary”(Cherry Lane, 1981), and his book and songwriting income helped keep it going. Ms. Westbrook said Mr. Lees’s wife of 38 years, the former Janet Suttle, planned to continue publishing it.
Mr. Lees’s first two marriages ended in divorce. In addition to his wife, he is survived by a son from his second marriage, Philip; a sister, Victoria; and a brother, David. His sister Patricia died in 1990.
Mr. Lees had strong, often contentious opinions and expressed them forcefully. He was steadfast in his contempt for rock music, calling it “junk” produced by “illiterates.” He was equally outspoken on the delicate subject of race and jazz, acknowledging the vital role played by African-American musicians but resisting the notion that jazz was an exclusively black art form.
“It is of course insane to classify someone who is seven-eighths white as black,” he wrote of New Orleans in the early days of jazz in “Cats of Any Color: Jazz Black and White”(Oxford University Press, 1994), a collection of his Jazzletter essays. “It was a fiction by which white racists kept light Creoles in their place. It is a fiction by which black racists maintain the definition of jazz as ‘Negro music.’ “
Mr. Lees supported his strong opinions with strong research. At times that research took him far afield of his ostensible subject. The first chapter of another essay collection,“Singers and the Song” (Oxford, 1987), for example, was a history of the English language from the 10th century to the present.
Eugene Frederick John Lees was born on Feb. 8, 1928, in Hamilton, Ontario, the eldest of four children of an expatriate British couple, Harold Lees and the former Dorothy Flatman. After dropping out of the Ontario College of Art, he worked as a newspaper reporter in Canada before moving to Kentucky to become music editor of The Louisville Times in 1955. He was the editor of Down Beat magazine from 1959 to 1961 and went on to write about music for The New York Times and other publications.
In addition to seven collections of Jazzletter essays, Mr. Lees’s books include biographies of Woody Herman, Oscar Peterson, Johnny Mercer and the songwriting team Lerner and Loewe. He was also a co-writer of the composer Henry Mancini‘s autobiography and author of two novels. At the time of his death he was working on a biography of Artie Shaw.
Frederick Eugene John "Gene" Lees (February 8, 1928 – April 22, 2010) was a Canadian music critic, biographer, lyricist, and former journalist. Lees worked as a newspaper journalist in his native Canada before moving to the United States where he was a music critic and lyricist. His lyrics for Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Corcovado" (released as "Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars"), have been recorded by such notable singers as Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Queen Latifah, and Diana Krall. Lees married Janet, his wife, in 1971.
Lees was the eldest of four children born to Harold Lees, a violinist, and Dorothy Flatman. His sister, Victoria Lees, is the former Secretary General of Montreal's McGill University, and his brother, David Lees, is an investigative journalist and science writer.
Beginning his writing career as a newspaper reporter in his native Canada, between 1948 and 1955 Lees contributed to The Hamilton Spectator, the Toronto Telegram, and the Montreal Star, and first worked as a music critic in the United States for the Louisville (Kentucky) Times between 1955 and 1959 and was editor of the jazz magazine Down Beat between 1959 and 1962.
As a freelance writer, Lees wrote for the American high fidelity magazines Stereo Review and High Fidelity (often using his column to defend jazz and older popular music while blasting "that rock junk"), the Canadian magazine Maclean's, the Toronto Star, the Toronto Globe and Mail, and The New York Times.
Lees wrote nearly one hundred liner notes for artists as diverse as Stan Getz, John Coltrane, and Quincy Jones. His first novel And Sleep Until Noon was published in 1967. The second, "Song Lake Summer" was published in 2008.
Lees won the first of five ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards in 1978 for a series of articles published in High Fidelity about US music. Lees' famous monthly Jazzletter was established in 1981, and contains musical criticism by Lees and others.
Lees wrote a rhyming dictionary in the 1980s, and published three compilations of pieces from his Jazzletter: Singers and the Song (1987), Meet Me at Jim & Andy's (1988), and Waiting for Dizzy (1991). As a biographer, Lees has written about Oscar Peterson, the partnership of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, Woody Herman, and collaborated with Henry Mancini on Mancini's autobiography. Lees wrote about racism in jazz music in Cats of Any Color: Jazz Black and White and on the effect of racism on the careers of Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Milt Jackson and Nat King Cole in You Can't Steal a Gift: Dizzy, Clark, Milt and Nat. Friends Along the Way: A Journey Through Jazz, a memoir, was published in 2003.
Lees studied composition by correspondence with the Berklee College of Music, in the early 1960s and piano with Tony Aless and guitar with Oscar Castro-Neves in New York City. Lees became a lyricist in the 1960s, writing many of the English language lyrics for Bossa Nova songs, translating them from their original Portuguese. Lees wrote the lyrics for the Antonio Carlos Jobim songs; "Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars", "Someone to Light Up My Life", "Song of the Jet", "This Happy Madness" and "Dreamer". "Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars" (originally "Corcovado") has been recorded by many artists, artists as diverse as Frank Sinatra and Queen Latifah. "Quiet Nights" was Lees' first professional lyric, written on a bus going to Belo Horizonte, while Lees was on a United States State Department tour of South America with the Paul Winter Sextet, in 1961. Sinatra recorded four songs by Jobim with lyrics by Lees, Sinatra's recording of "Quiet Nights" (from Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim, 1967), is considered by Lees to be definitive. Lees also wrote the lyics for Charles Aznavour's, "Paris Is at Her Best in May" and "Venice Blue", and Aznavour's 1965 Broadway concert, The World of Charles Aznavour. Lees contributed lyrics to "Bridges" by Milton Nascimento; "Yesterday I Heard the Rain" by Armando Manzanero; and Bill Evans' "Waltz for Debby". Poems by Pope John Paul II were translated by Lees and recorded by Sarah Vaughan as the song cycle One World, One Peace in 1985.
Lees briefly returned to Canada in the early 1970s and recorded the LP Bridges: Gene Lees Sings the Gene Lees Songbook on Kanata Records, a Toronto company of which he became president from 1971 to 1974. Lees briefly had his own late-night CBC TV show in 1971, appeared as a commentator or singer on other CBC Toronto and Ottawa TV and radio series, and was host 1973–4 for Toronto radio station CKFM-FM's Gene Lees and Friends. Lees released a second album in 1998, Gene Lees Sings Gene Lees and recorded Leaves on the Water with pianist Roger Kellaway, and a third "Yesterday I Heard The Rain" with a group of jazz all-stars led by Don Thompson.
Lees had struggled with heart disease in his later years, and died on April 22, 2010 at his home in Ojai, California. Lees wife, Janet, was present at his death.