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Gene Lees, 82

Gene Lees, 82; jazz writer, biographer, critic, lyricist

 Gene Lees, jazz critic, lyricist and biographer
Gene Lees, jazz critic, lyricist and biographer (John Reeves - John Reeves)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 24, 2010

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, Calif., after a stroke. He was 82.

After working as a journalist early in his career, Mr. Lees began to write song lyrics in the 1960s and was best known for his collaborations with Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim. His lyrics to Jobim's "Corcovado" (known in English as "Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars") have been recorded by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Krall and dozens of other singers, including Mr. Lees himself.

He made his most lasting mark on the world of jazz, however, with a series of deeply personal essays and books that delved into the personal lives of musicians and sometimes upset popularly held beliefs. Since 1981, Mr. Lees had published his idiosyncratic Jazzletter, a monthly collection of essays that was something of a blog before the term was invented. It became an underground sensation among musicians and critics, and Mr. Lees often reworked articles from his newsletter into books.

His writing ranged widely across the musical landscape and often contained autobiographical reflections that raised his essays far above the level of standard criticism. In an essay on clarinetist Artie Shaw, for instance, Mr. Lees mused on art, memory and mortality:

"When you are young, in any generation, major public names surround you like great trees. When you grow older, and start losing friends, one day you realize that you don't have many left. And then there is another dark revelation: even those famous figures are going, and one day it comes to you: They're clear-cutting the landscape of your life."

Much of Mr. Lees's writing grew out of his friendships with leading musical figures, including trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, singer Peggy Lee and songwriter Johnny Mercer. He had a close association with pianist Bill Evans and composed a memorable set of lyrics to one of Evans's best-known tunes, "Waltz for Debby."

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.

"He brought that great set of journalistic skills to the demanding business of writing critical biographies," critic Doug Ramsey said Friday. "He was acerbic, argumentative and opinionated, but you couldn't help liking him."

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."

In another book, "Cats of Any Color" (1994), Mr. Lees described the discrimination faced by black musicians and confronted a subject few other writers were willing to touch -- "Crow Jim," or reverse racism toward white musicians. He drew on historical scholarship to show that jazz contained elements from many cultures and that black and white musicians freely borrowed from each other from the beginning. Never tentative in his views, Mr. Lees was loudly opposed to what he saw as modern tendencies to segregate jazz again and label it exclusively "black music."


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