Gene Lees, 1928-2010

Gene Lees died today. 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 MercerThumbnail image for Gene Lees.jpg 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.

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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  1. Linda Shank says

    Doug – I had been trying to reach Gene for the last month but his phone was disconnected and his website defunct. Nobody seemed to know what was up with him, which in retrospect does not surprise me. He was a huge presence in my life, so supportive of Bud and of my abortive attempts to write lyrics and other stuff. I loved his peppery personality and his wonderful writing, and I loved him. Not many of us left now, and I feel like the hobbits watching Lothlorien recede into the distance.

  2. says

    What a loss to the jazz community, the arts community, and all those who love good writing and insightful thinking.
    I never knew Gene (much to my regret), but like so many people, I feel as though I knew him through his words — both those set to melodies and those that carried a tune of their own on the page.
    Gene’s family is in my thoughts, as are you.

  3. says

    I awoke this morning to find an email from my friend Bob Morgan, sending me this link to your announcement of Gene’s passing. What a blow – to all of us who avidly read Gene’s books and the “Jazzletter.” And whether or not you agreed with Gene’s point of view about things, he always provoked you to think. And isn’t that what any writer should do? Another of the beautiful aspects of his writings (and there were many) was his ability to take you back to the time and place of which he was writing, places that, unfortunately no longer exist as they did “back in the time.” How happy I am to have experienced and shared in at least some of that history of this great music about which Gene wrote. Gene will be terribly missed by the community he so beautifully served. And which you do as well.

  4. Jon Foley says

    Condolences on the loss of your friend Gene Lees. But then, all of us in the jazz world lost someone special with his passing. I own three of his books and subscribed to the JazzLetter for a few years, and never read anything he had written that was less than skillfully crafted, informative and fascinating.
    A great loss to the music world, but he’ll live on in his books, the way Whitney Balliett still does for me.

  5. says

    Lovely reminiscence, Doug, thanks for this personal appraisal of the man the Jazz Journalists Association awarded for his Lifetime Achievement in Jazz Journalism in 2004.

  6. says

    Oh, what a loss! I hadn’t heard from Gene for a while, and wasn’t aware that he was in bad health. Thanks for letting me know. I owe him a lot, since he was the one who first encouraged me to start writing again, and who published my Russian article in JAZZLETTER, and a few character sketches that later became part of my second book. I’ll miss him terribly. Your blog notes on him are lovely.

  7. W. Royal Stokes says

    I was shocked and saddened to learn a short while ago that Gene had died, and I was very moved by your Rifftides tribute to him.
    I have all of Gene’s books and may I note that you omitted one important title, namely, his novel Song Lake Summer, which I bought from him several years ago and, upon reading it, wrote him how much it had moved me. He replied thanking me with very grateful words, clearly moved by my admiration of it, adding that he had carried the story around in his head for decades.
    How sad that Gene had not published his Artie bio. A couple of years ago he sought me out as a contract reader of the MS — I gave it a rave assessment — after he had submitted it to Yale U Press (who wanted to reduce its length plus insisting on unreasonable alterations and he withdrew it) and told me that he was negotiating with U of N. Texas Press. Sure hope it gets published. I have on hand, but have not yet read, Tom Nolan’s new bio of Artie. He seems to have had no contact with Gene. At least Gene is not mentioned in the book.

  8. Steven Hashimoto says

    The news of Mr. Lees’ death is a shock to me. I am a jazz musician in Chicago, and I have written an online newsletter (it’s not a blog; people have to receive it personally from me)for many years, during which I have repeatedly cited Gene’s books “Meet Me At Jim And Andy’s” and “The Singer And The Song” as the two best books ever written about jazz and jazz musicians. If I have developed as a writer at all it is due to studying Gene’s work. My condolences to his friends and family. The jazz world has indeed lost a giant, a friend, an advocate, and a conscience.

  9. says

    What a loss! “Leader of the Band” about the life and times of Woody Herman is among my favorite jazz books. I need to read his other work – especially “Cats of Any Color” as this is a subject of great interest to me. More people of my generation should be aware of Gene. Maybe young jazz scholars like Nate Chinen, Alex Rodriguez, Bradley Farberman and Aidan Levy can aid that cause. I hope all the prominent jazz magazines pay proper tribute to this great scholar and lyricist.
    I was never fortunate enough to receive “The Jazz Letter,” his newsletter. Does anyone know if it’s archived online anywhere?
    And does anyone know where his archives and papers will go or if they are already housed at an institution of higher learning? I’d imagine Dr. John Hasse at the Smithsonian would be jockeying for them for the museum’s extensive jazz archive but I’d like to stay abreast of this in particular because I’d really love to peruse them at some point.

  10. says

    Mr. Ramsey: Thank you for a moving tribute of a marvelous artist and a thorough gentleman. We will all miss his wonderful work, always written with childlike wonder yet deeply mature intellect. What a loss!

  11. Karen DeVinney says

    Everyone is remembering Gene for his brilliant contributions to music and music writing, but I’d like to commemorate his contribution to publishing. He was a great help in bringing our Lenny Breau and Scott LaFaro books to press; they simply would not have been published without him. He was a friend of small presses, which is where the really interesting writing is showing up these days. University of North Texas Press was indeed considering his Artie Shaw manuscript, but I was awaiting some more material from Gene. I’ll miss him! Personally and professionally.

  12. says

    I never met Gene, but I used to read his stuff in Stereo Review as a kid, and learned a lot from it. In a sense, he’s the reason I wound up at that magazine a few years later, which remains the turning point of my own life…

  13. Helene LaFaro-Fernandez says

    My husband, Manny, and I are so saddened by the loss of our lovely friend, Gene. Our friendship with Gene and Janet grew through the years he mentored me in writing my biography of my brother Scott. We looked forward to the many times we spent around their table talking of any imaginable subject. It was always a joy as well as a learning experience. He was indeed an erudite gentleman who will be missed not only by all who knew him, but by those who have read his work and looked forward to whatever would be next.

  14. says

    The often say the melody lingers on, but as in the case with Gene not only do the lyrics linger on, but so does his melodious writing that always conjured images of the subjects he wrote about. It truly is with a heavy heart to read of his passing.
    Thank you Doug, for conveying Gene’s artistry and gifts through your own.

  15. Cliff Hopkinson says

    Even though in his last years Gene was not always well, it is still a shock to realize that that amazingly strong life force is extinct. He had, of course, a ready sense of humor; we had conversations over several years, often serious, but invariably punctuated by laughter both mischievous and gleeful. But there was nothing lighthearted about his passions for music and honest writing. Those were deep, even deeper perhaps than his vigorous appetite for life.
    They were characteristics that were plain in his books and in The Jazz Letter, all delivered in a writerly voice that made enjoyable almost everything he wrote. His good and gracious friend Doug Ramsey, in his beautiful tribute to Gene, says he wrote “like and angel.” So he did, and like an angel who, in almost his work, was direct, clear, critical, convinced but considerate and, by turns, amusing. Above all he was a brilliant storyteller. His prose was rich with anecdotes.
    It is sad that his own story and his immense service to jazz are over. He will live on, of course, in his books, which are a finer testament than most men could ever expect.

  16. says

    Gene’s health had not been good during the last few years, and as a result, those of us who were his friends were in less contact with him recently than we would have liked.
    He and I were friends for over 20 years, and he gave me a kick in the derriere to start writing prose again after I had set that craft aside in favor of a career as a performing musician. I wrote something that he published in his Jazzletter, and that piece led directly and indirectly to a host of other writing projects for me. I’ll always be indebted to him for that–and for introducing me to a number of people who have become close friends of mine.
    He was great fun to hang out with, either in person or on the phone. I learned a lot from him, and I’d like to think that he learned a bit from me as well–I introduced him to a number of younger musicians that he included in his JAZZ LIVES photo book. (It’s nice to be able to give something back.)
    Gene felt things very deeply. I don’t think that he was disinterested about anything or anyone. That was part of who he was. At times he could be infuriating, but ultimately whatever he did to piss one off didn’t matter, because knowing him was by and large so fascinating and rewarding.
    I’ll miss him a lot–I do already.

  17. Jack Bowers says

    I’m sorry I didn’t know Gene; he sounds like a wonderful person, one to whom I would definitely have related. He did his best to help make the world a better place, and that’s the most any of us can do.

  18. nick catalano says

    I have great memories of visiting Gene in Ojai and writing about his “singing” at the Knickerbocker here in NY years ago….
    He steered me to Sheldon Meyer at Oxford who wound up publishing my “Clifford Brown” book…
    He will be missed…

  19. Julius LaRosa says


  20. says

    I had a series of brief email exchanged with Gene some years ago. I’m
    a professional jazz pianist and I wanted to pick his brain a bit for info
    on Bill Evans, a very good friend of Genes. He was most gracious and
    accommodating, writing several long and insightful emails re Bill.
    I mourn his loss with everyone in the jazz community.
    My one big regret is that he did not write a full-fledged bio of Evans.
    He was the one to do it. The extant bio’s of Bill don’t do him justice, and I know that Gene would have made a marvelous job of it. I asked him about it. His reply was somewhat opaque, but the distinct impression I got was that writing a bio of Bill would have too painful for him.
    But he left us much great writing and music.
    RIP, Mr. Lees. You will be sorely missed.

  21. Dick McGarvin says

    What a shock and what a loss. But the sadness I felt learning of Gene’s passing was quickly joined by feelings of gratitude and appreciation for all that he brought to my life with his wonderful writing — first in Down Beat, then through his lyrics, the always interesting and illuminating Jazzletter and, of course, his books. Most of Gene’s books are on my shelf. I think the only ones that aren’t are the compilations of articles from his Jazzletter, and that’s because I was a subscriber to the Jazzletter right from the beginning. I have every issue carefully filed away.
    Although I didn’t know Gene well, we did have a little correspondence over the years, and a couple times, back when I was on KLON, I called and put him on the air to get his comments and insight on something.
    Thank you for your touching piece. And when I read your adaptation of his lyric…well, it was choke-up time.

  22. Steven Kunes says

    Gene Lees was there for me in my darkest hour. He would send me letter after letter and in all of them he’d encourage me to look ahead, he would fill me with hope, he would fight for me to fight for myself and for the creation of my art. Gene Lees was no mere critic, no mere jazz historian, and no mere songwriter, per se. He was a poet of the highest order. He added to the tapestry of the artistic world with his genius and with his respect for all artists, not just musicians, and there will not be a single day from this point on that I will not think about him and miss him greatly. Bravo, Gene, without a doubt. Bravo!

  23. Patrick Goodhope says

    I feel like I knew him from his work.
    Meet Me at Jim and Andy’s was the first book on Jazz that I read that elevated my awareness beyond the liner notes/press agent writing that I had previously been exposed to.
    I thought he looked fragile in the Johnny Mercer documentary which must have been filmed in early 2009.
    We all lose.
    I sure hope his Shaw bio is far enough along that it makes it out.

  24. Hal Strack says

    This news is most unwelcome, and cause for great sorrow. Your comments and characterization in Rifftides about Gene, your gifted friend and colleague, were appropriately descriptive and revealing. You are to be thanked and commended for your loving tribute. In my more limited, but cherished, contact with Gene I found him to excel in so many ways. He obviously was an author and chronicler of great proportion. His books and other writings are authoritative accounts of most of the important performers of the jazz idiom. He was a most talented lyricist. He was a jazz authority of few peers, knowing the principals of whom he wrote, as well as having a deeply analytical grasp of their work. He understood the underlying music in all of its details and ramifications. That extended to the classical musical forms, as well as those of various ethnic origins. He was a very thorough historian of so many subjects that it is difficult to know if there might have been anything that he missed. The world, in losing an intellectual force of his magnitude, has indeed been deprived of one of its greater recent contributors . Fortunately we do have his monumental writings, the knowledge that he shared with us, and the memory of a highly motivated and committed human being and friend. Bless him.

  25. says

    Your very fine words on Gene Lees will hopefully have people chasing down his books and also bring about a much broader appreciation of his contribution to jazz … including his wonderful use of language when conveying both feelings and emotion, creating the perfect picture in the mind of readers and listeners. This is equally true of his lyrics and essays.
    A special thanks for your contribution to his memory.

  26. David Hill says

    Thank you for your remembrance of Gene Lees on Rifftides. I’ve been a fan of his for quite a while, own several of his books, and love reading his work again and again. I was not fortunate enough to have met him.
    Strangely, Gene was somewhat of a pariah on the Duke Ellington Internet Discussion Group I belong to, all because he expressed some doubt and criticism of Ellington’s greatness immediately after his death. I’ve loved Duke, and Billy Strayhorn even moreso, since I was in high school, and I fortunately realize my own appreciation has nothing to do with someone else’s opinion of them.
    I can certainly say that my experience of Jazz as a whole has been greatly enhanced by the writings of Gene Lees.

  27. says

    Thank you for your thoughts and words on Gene’s passing. His presence was deeply felt by many, and I will miss him too.
    My memory of Gene is indelible, and although we had a few conversations I can remember them clearly. They took place years ago (90’s) and they were filled with the kind of straightforward quick paced informative wit and humor that one could expect from Gene.
    I initiated the first phone call to his home in Ojai, and from the moment introductions were delivered, we were off and running into the subject matter with fervor. At the time the state of jazz was a subject of discussion, and we talked as if we had known each other for years. I appreciated that about Gene, the openness and willingness to take things at face value.
    Gene invited me up to Ojai more than once, and I’m sorry I didn’t take that opportunity at the time. But, it’s all fine, because I’ll take all the moments we did speak with gratitude.
    Farewell, Gene.

  28. Tom Honig says

    Thanks for the wonderful article, Doug. Thanks to you, I was able to spend considerable time with Gene at a weekend forum you hosted on — of all things — welfare reform and the economy. Speaking with Gene that weekend, and later reading his fine books, gave me — a non-musician — unparalleled insight into the music and musicians that I hold in such high esteem. Thanks again.

  29. says

    Your article, obituary, was very personal, and moving. Gene must have been quite a complex, multilayered, and brutally honest man.
    That outspokenness certainly didn’t make it very easy to get along with him. But always better to speak it out loudly instead of bottling up something. Besides: Great anecdote about Bernard Herrmann. — We need such people, especially nowadays!
    Yet another one of the “men of words” is gone. That very Booker Little composition could morph from the dedication to a living writer to an ever fitting requiem. Quite a lot of jazz- and music-related losses in the past few months. But the ones who have passed will know that their books will be read, and their music will be played for future generations. It’s still all out there.
    (To see Mr. Leicht’s blog about Gene Lees and hear the Booker Little piece, click on “Bruno Leicht” in red in the upper left corner of this comment. — DR)

  30. says

    Gene was the first person to introduce me to Brazilian music…he called me up to his pad..a million years ago—..and played “Joao Gilberto” for me…He’d just come back from Brazil….I was never the same. Brazilian music has been a primary passion in my musical life–since that very moment in time….I was extremely saddened to hear about his passing. I last saw Gene playing at The Knickerbocker…..long time ago.
    Just a beautifully written piece that really touched my heart. It sounded just like the Gene I knew and I wanted to thank you for writing it.

  31. Rob D says

    I loved Gene’s books and have read most of them. He was obviously a very important presence in many people’s lives and I am sorry I didn’t realize his other large contributions in so many areas of music and life. Thanks Doug for writing so well and so eloquently on the man. I listen to a lot of music but I always come back to jazz to recharge my batteries. It’s a beautiful music that best reflects life for me. Gene helped me explore and rejoice in the incredible creativity of the music available to anyone with ears to hear it.

  32. Geoff Mirelowitz says

    I first discovered Gene’s writing some 20 years ago when I purchased Bill Evans “The Solo Sessions.” Gene had written the liner notes. On the basis of that alone I immediately subscribed to the Jazzletter. I read it for many years and read almost all of Gene’s books as well. To describe those essays as among the finest writing on jazz — which they are — is to limit them unfairly. Many are among the finest pieces I have read on any subject.
    I did not always agree with Gene’s take on some issues. In particular I regret that he seemed so closed to the popular music of my generation (The Beatles and so much else that was musically inventive and in some cases simply beautiful, in the ’60s and later). But agree or not, his writing was thought provoking, interesting and often elegant. Likewise I did not always share all his thoughts on the issue of jazz and race but I respected him for expressing himself forthrightly and I found some of his opinions deeply insightful.
    My greatest regret is that he did not write the one biography so many of us hoped he would. With Gene’s passing I’m afraid we have lost forever the opportunity for a truly definitive biography of Bill Evans, written by someone who really knew Bill, as well as the people and times in which Bill lived and made music.. I corresponded with Gene about this more than once and I understand why he felt it was something he could not do. But I wish he had.

  33. bruce hart says

    Gene Lees came to my attention many years ago in Australia where I grew up listening to jazz. And when I dscovered his books I bought each one and ‘Cats of Any Colour’ is my favourite for the story re: the muso with his picture on the wall. I now live in the USA where it all began and Lees will be missed very much. I cannot think of any writer who wrote with such sensitivity and insight into this music and it has saved my life a few times. Life is too short to listen to bad music and to not know about writers such as Lees is to have missed out on someone very special indeed. He had the heart of a poet and his words communicated the inprovisations of some one with a very tender soul. He is sorely missed.

  34. Sem van Gelder says

    With his knowledge and warmth he gave us many empathic insights in the world of jazz musicans. I read his books over and again.