Jazz great makes
'Friends Along the Way'
By Kelly Feser Eells
Though he has chosen in live
in sunny and warm Ojai, Gene Lees keeps his cool.
The man can't help it: he lives and breathes jazz. Or, as composer
Johnny Mandel puts it, "Most people write of this music
and musicians like they are fish in an aquarium. Gene is always
in there swimming with them."
Born in Ontario, Canada 75 years ago, Lees trained as a commercial
artist at the Ontario College of Art and studied music both at
home and at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Mass., before
returning to Canada and embarking on a career as a journalist.
He was 27, with six years of reporting experience under his belt,
when he decided he needed a change of scenery.
In his newest book, "Friends Along the Way: A Journey through
Jazz" (2003), Lees recalls the day he told his editor, George
Ferguson of the Montreal Star, he planned on leaving the paper's
"Where do you plan to go?" Ferguson asked Lees.
"England or the United States," Lees replied.
"Go to the United States," Ferguson said, "they
That, Lees says, was a turning point.
His decision to take a job with the Louisville Times, whose managing
editor wanted Lees to be its music critic, was another turning
point. "I've often considered what might have been my life
had I taken the Washington Post job" (he'd been offered).
Little wonder: His life has been every bit as colorful as the
jazz greats and near-greats he writes about.
A three-time winner of the ASCAP (American Society of Composers,
Authors and Publishers) Deems Taylor award, Lees is, in many
respects, a jazz great himself. His lyrics have been recorded
by everyone who was anyone, including: Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan,
Peggy Lee, Mabel Mercer, Tony Bennett, Carmen McRae and Ella
When he isn't writing and publishing
the Jazzletter - the monthly publication he founded in 1981,
"written for musicians, dealing with matters that concern
musicians" - he's composing, oftentimes with longtime pal
and neighbor Roger Kellaway, jazz pianist extraordinaire. "Gene
Lees is the glowing jewel of jazz, for his understanding of it,
for his writing about it, and for his lyrics, which are always
perfect for the music," said his late friend, Dizzy Gillespie
The man can sing, too, most recently on "Yesterday I Heard
the Rain: Gene Lees Sings Gene Lees," released in 1995.
"Back in the early 1970s, when I was living in Toronto,
I did a lot of singing; much of it on television," Lees
notes. "I like it, but I prefer to write."
Yes, he does - everything but criticism.
In fact, Lees hadn't been at his Louisville job long when "
I discovered I had an intense distaste for writing criticism.
I disliked passing judgment on the work of others."
Complicating matters further, an increasing number of big-name
singers began recording his songs, putting him in somewhat of
a compromised position, and he was also collaborating on songs
with a good number of major musicians, "many of whom became
my friends, some of them close friends."
This isn't to say Lees couldn't manage two hats. Indeed, he edited
Downbeat magazine, wrote columns for High Fidelity and Stereo
Review magazines, collaborated on songs with musicians like Antonio
Carlos Jobim and wrote lyrics all at the same time for awhile.
Nor is it to say he has any trouble dismissing something as "pure
crap" when his educated ear tells him that's precisely what
He just sees no point in it, not when there are so many other
things to write about.
"I have written very little jazz criticism," Lees wrote
in the introduction to his critically acclaimed "Cats of
any Color," a collection of intimate recollections, vignettes
and interviews chronicling racism in the jazz scene. "Which
is why in early years I was discomfited to see myself referred
to as a 'jazz critic'" - not coincidentally, the way he's
referred to on the jacket of his latest book, "Friends Along
Of course, he's also referred to as a jazz historian and educator,
descriptions much closer to the mark: the Jazzletter is a point
of reference used by musicians, teachers, and "anyone who
just loves jazz" worldwide.
But Lees is perhaps best described as jazz's best friend.
Though he has "an enormous number of friends and acquaintances
in all walks of life, including people in politics (including
Congressman John Conyers, a Jazzletter subscriber and 'great
jazz lover'); I'd say that most of my friendships have been
shaped and even formed out of an interest in music," said
Lees, "jazz in particular."
The 25-year Ojai resident even met his wife, Janet, "through
a mutual friend, jazz musician Herbie Mann."
Is he a jazz snob?
"I'm a snob about everything," Lees says with a serious
smile; "including the use of the English language, the French
language, classical music, literature. I feel like Duke Ellington,
who said, more or less: 'I'm easily pleased. I only want the
best.' It is the decay of snobbery that is putting this civilization
down the drain."
"Friends along the Way" is anything but snobbish, in
the sense that snobbish means 'inaccessible' or 'hard to digest.'
On the contrary, Lees 13th book is eminently readable, a delight
to read, actually, even for those who might have never heard
or ever cared to hear a lick of jazz. "Friends" is
a collection of 15 mini-biographies of friends Lees hadn't, until
now, profiled - some well-known jazz musicians, some certain
to become well-known, and some, like talent agent Helen Keane
and Voice of America broadcaster Willis Conover, other "best
friends" of jazz.
The story of Willis Conover, whose "Music USA" program
turned millions of oppressed people living in communist bloc
countries on to jazz (as well as a reason to tune into Voice
of America) in his 42-year career, still vexes Lees.
"The government resolutely continues to ignore Willis' contribution"
- to the fields of both entertainment and diplomacy - "while
giving the Medal of Freedom to all sorts of improbable people."
Conover, who died in 1996, was twice nominated for the presidential
Medal of Freedom award; the first time during the George H.W.
Bush administration, the second time during President Clinton's.
Twice his nominations were ignored.
"My God," Lees writes, "aside from his VOA broadcasts,
the White House had used him repeatedly over the years,"
for everything from inaugural events to government-sponsored
festivals. The author was speaking to his friend Leonard Garment
(former president Nixon's personal counsel and executor of Conover's
estate) about Conover recently; both agree "it's an ongoing
Together and individually, the stories in "Friends"
provide an insightful and thoroughly entertaining look at American
True to form, Lees isn't letting any grass grow under his feet:
A biography of Johnny Mercer (yet another good friend) is almost
ready for release.
"Friends along the Way" is available at Amazon.com,
directly through the publisher, Yale University Press, and at
many leading bookstores.
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