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Thread: Gene Lees

  1. #1

    Gene Lees

    Jazz critic, novelist, journalist, editor and publisher Gene Lees has died, age 82. He is the lyricist of such songs as "Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars," "Dindi," "Someone to Light Up My Life" and "Yesterday I Heard the Rain."

    One of his books, "The Singers & the Song," includes an excellent chapter on Sinatra. He was present when Sinatra and Jobim recorded "Quiet Nights" and "Dindi" and wrote about the experience.

    He wrote biographies of Woody Herman, Johnny Mercer, Lerner and Loewe and at the time of his death, had nearly finished a book on Artie Shaw.

  2. A very talented gentleman. I think he was one of the interviewees in the recent Clint Eastwood documentary about Johnny Mercer.

  3. Those are wonderful accomplishments and memorable songs. I would hate to see his work toward completing a book on Artie Shaw go down in vain. It would be nice if legal clearances between his estate and the publishing company could complete it.
    ......pick yourself up...... ......dust yourself off...... ......start all over again...... (my e-mail)

  4. #4

    A Very Nice Man

    I always called him "Mr. Lees," but he always came back with, "it's Gene, as in Kelly, the most famous graduate of your alma mater!"

    He loved to eat at The Cattleman on West 44th Street -- they had the creamiest cheesecake!

    And his Mercer bio is just wonderful! Written by a 'man who loved music & musicians,' about a 'man who loved music & musicians.' I heartily recommend it!

    R.I.P., Gene!
    Stanley

  5. #5

    Unhappy So sorry for this loss

    sleep warm Gene!
    LEATRICE (LEE) Fort Myers, Florida, USA
    Sinatra, Sinatra,Sinatra! Pray for Robin!

  6. Sorry he had to leave us.




  7. #7
    I am a fan of Gene Lees. In his writing Lees often went beyond his subject to incorporate other ideas and topics while at the same time time tying up all the loose ends neatly. If you can find his essay William and Harold and How to Write Lyrics you will get an idea of what I mean. He tells the story of William the Conquerer's victory over Harold at Hastings in 1066 and how it affected music in the 20th Century. Can you imagine that?

    Lees seemed to really love his subjects. I recall an essay of Dick Haymes that was quite touching and showed Haymes from a perspective I had not known. Lees' affection for Haymes as well as his other subjects was quite obvious. Some detractors might say that Lees wasn't always factual, that he let his feelings get in the way of events. But I was always interested in what he wrote.

    Lees also turns up as lyricist on quite a few beautiful songs as Edwin points out.

    Just a wonderful talent and witness and spokesperson for the music we of this forum love so much.

    Larry

  8. #8

    Think maybe there's a 'composers' corner' in heaven?

    I came here hoping to find --and perhaps add something meaningful -- to this thread (started by Edwin) honoring the memory of, as Larry put it so well (above) “a wonderful witness to the music we of this forum love so much.”

    -----

    Though I never met the man, I kept accumulating musical history books by Gene Lees. Maybe it’s because he hailed from Hamilton, Ontario Canada and started out writing for (three) Canadian newspapers before becoming editor of "DOWN BEAT" magazine.

    Just as an aside: Gene Lees was also the very best reviewer for the old “Hi Fi & Stereo Review” magazine (remember that one?). Mr. Lees (loved Stanley’s personal anecdote “Call me Gene, as in Kelly!”) Gene Lees wrote some wonderful books (I reviewed one of them, quite recently, over at the world’s biggest website – his “Rhyming Dictionary” (“the best of the breed” I say).

    http://www.amazon.com/Modern-Rhyming-Dictionary-Book/dp/0895243172/ref=cm_cr-mr-title

    Besides giving us the best biography (I say) of JOHNNY MERCER I especially loved Lees’ fascinating book about Lerner & Lowe -- titled “INVENTING CHAMPAGNE” (as in, “The Night They Invented Champagne” in ‘Gigi').

    But to those of us who treasure Frank Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim’s great recordings (and look forward to the “complete recordings” release in just a few more days) Gene Lees was, above all else, the man who wrote the English words for Jobim’s “Corcovado” -- “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars.”[ Imagine his pleasure when, in 1967, Lees got to sit in the studio watching and listening with delight, as Sinatra & Jobim” gave his song what Lees himself termed it’s “definitive reading.”

    Gene Lees published a Jazz Newsletter out of his home in the town of “Paradise” California. (Perhaps he moved? The New York Times, in its obit of yesterday, said he “died Thursday (April 22) at his home in Ojai, California, of an apparent stroke.”)

    Recently I started a thread over at the world’s largest website for musicians (in their “songwriting” folder – a posting titled “First a great melody, then the lyrics, (only) THEN, the vocals”). And I quoted Lees’ succinct advice to frustrated song-writers (like me). His ‘words to the wise’ were summed up in the phrase, “Study the masters.” (May I share it, here & now – titled, “No Matter What Song You’re Trying to Write . . . “

    -----

    Every artist begins by studying the masters . . . at least, according to someone who wrote English lyrics for Brazil's Cole Porter (as I call Antonio Carlos Jobim). Canadian-born jazz writer and lyricist Gene Lees says,

    "Begin by imitating the masters," (regardless of your field of music). "At least you should do that if you have any brains.

    "Eventually you'll begin to understand what the masters did, and why . . . and grasp the technique itself.

    "If you have what is generally called 'talent' you'll begin to do fresh and personal work . . . and it will be said of (your) work that 'it has a style.'

    "If you have no talent, and remain 'derivative,' you will at least, through the imitation of good models, produce competent work and will do no great harm to the art."

    "Perhaps," writes Lees (in his "Practical Guide to Lyric Writing for Songwriters and Poets") "perhaps there is no such thing as 'talent.' Perhaps what we call talent is simply an unquenchable curiosity about how things are done, or made . . . coupled with a dogged patience about becoming adept in the principles that (you) have uncovered.

    "Or, inverting the thought, we might say that everyone has talent . . . not everyone has the determination and patience to develop it. The beginning place in that process is . . . the study of the work of the masters.

    -- Gene Lees (circa 1981)

    P.S. Fans of the “Bill Evans / Tony Bennett” (alone-together) album recall the lovely waltz/lullaby tune composed by that “most influential jazz pianist” with its charming lyric by Lees – “Waltz for Debby.” Besides the songs listed by Edwin at the start of this thread, I think my favorite of his up-tempo songs (one featured regularly on Siriusly Sinatra satellite radio) is "This Happy Madness." Again, Gene would tell you Frank’s version of that one ‘retired the trophy.’

    One other thing that appealed to me personally: Lees translated some poems by Pope John Paul II which were then recorded by Sarah Vaughan as the song cycle “One World, One Peace” (1985).

    My absolute favorite of his books? His biography of his good friend, “Johnny Mercer.” There are other bios of my favorite ‘non-theatrical’ lyricist . . . but the one by Gene Lees is the best. I’d like to believe that right this minute, Gene Lees and Johnny Mercer are trading jokes and maybe even ‘heavenly’ (new) song lyrics, set to celestial music. To paraphrase James Taylor, if heaven isn’t a musical place “maybe I don’t want to go!”

  9. #9
    Mark, thanks for that post. Have read much of what Gene Lees wrote and wish I'd known him. Songwriter, critic, novelist, historian. His love for and knowledge of the music was clearly expressed. So many of the really good guys are passing on.

  10. #10
    OK Mark,

    You sold a book. I just bought Lees' bio of Mercer on line.

    Larry

  11. #11

    Cherishing their memories

    Thanks, Edwin. Your own "love for and knowledge of the music" is evident in most every post you've ever made here; thanks again for starting this thread. As you say, so many good guys are passing on. And we cherish their memories here in "Unforgettable."

    Ditto to Larry: You must have posted something that wasn't thoughtful or interesting . . . but I can't remember when. Thanks again to two of my favorite contributors at SFF. I'd like to think Gene Lees is looking down now, and smiling on us 'eulogists.'

    I attended a funeral yesterday (the mother of a friend; she made it to age 93. A well-attended funeral but my friend "Mike" -- a co-worker of 20 years -- was the only one who stood up to share a couple of humorous anecdotes about his Mom. The tentative laughter it evoked . . . well, it was just what everyone needed.

    Wish I could attend the memorial service for Gene Lees; would love to 'meet and greet' those who will eulogize HIM. Funny, isn't it? -- how joyful such shared reminescences can be? . . . like sunlight suddenly breaking through rain-filled clouds.

    Oh yes -- pursuant to JohnOfPhilly's expressed hope -- about the biography of Artie Shaw Gene was writing at the time of his death: My favorite anecdote concerning those two good friends, Artie and Gene, I transcribed for a friend, recently. If I can just find it, I promise to return and post it here.

  12. #12

    Mr. Lees on Mr. Sinatra...

    From "Singers and the Song,"

    "But in pioneering a new approach to singing, Sinatra also created a problem. What he did seemed so indisputably right that any other approach to phrasing seemed wrong. If one phrased in the same way, one sounded obviously derivative. But what was the singer to do, not phrase for the meaning of the lyric?"

    That's all you need to know about Mr. Lees. One hell of a guy!

    Stanley

  13. #13

    Found it!

    First, a big thank you to Stanley for the short & sweet example of Gene Lees' insightful writing -- and great 'economy of style.' So few words to capture the dilemma of every serious singer to follow Sinatra!

    I found what I was looking for . . . a sample of what might have been included in that book JohnofPhilly referenced (above) unfinished at the time of Gene Lees's passing. See if you don't agree that this is some great writing! [From an essay he wrote titled, "The Romantic Artie Shaw."]

    "I was enduring," writes Lees, "a chamber-music concert with a friend" (who will turn out to be Artie Shaw) "then wearing a full beard. This was in the ornate white marble rotunda of the city hall of Ventura California. A thousand yards away lies a strip of sand beyond which the Pacific Ocean . . .

    My friend (Shaw) both of us far from the crimson autumns and white winters of our respective childhoods, were listening to European music on the final frontier of Western civilization.

    The orchestra comprised eleven musicians; the audience, despite casual California atire, had the air of earnest interest [in the music by] Gounod, Dvorak and Stravinsky. During the course of those works, my friend drew my attention to the clarinetists in the orchestra, and after the performance, he made a point of speaking to one of them.

    He told the young man, who must have been about twenty-two, "Anyway, I just wanted you to know how much I liked your playing."

    And he walked away. The young man went on disasembling his clarinet and putting it into its velvet-lined case. His equanimity piqued my curiosity. I went to him and said, "Did the man with the beard tell you his name?"

    "No, who is he?"

    "Artie Shaw," I said.

    He looked as if he'd been hit with a brick. He hurried to find other woodwind players, and soon they -- and some of the string players -- had Artie surrounded and were begging him to start making music again. [Later at a restaurant some mutual friends asked Artie Shaw how those youngsters knew who he was]: "This idiot," Artie said, "jerking his thumb towards me, "TOLD them."

    "Arthur," I said, "there was no way that I was going to let that young man go through life never knowing that once, when he was very young, his playing received a compliment from Artie Shaw."

    [Later in this splendid chapter, Lees writes]

    "Superlatives are always dangerous, but these few are safe: Artie Shaw was the most celebrated and the most glamorous of the big-band leaders, and he made the most headlines, in part because of marriages, eight in all, to famous beauties including Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and Evelyn Keyes . . . in part because he did what in America is unthinkable: he walked out on success," [at the peak of his skills and fame, leaving us with] "a persistent legend, four hundred recordings -- many of which are still selling [60] years after they were made -- and a reputation for peerless musicianship."

    -- Gene Lees

  14. #14
    Rest In Peace Gene Lees.

  15. #15

    Letting Gene have the 'last word' on the subject

    Gene Lees wrote a poem, titled simply, SONNET. It's like something my mother would have written. I know Mom would have appreciated Mr. Lees' perfectly poetic summing-up of the mystery of the shared joy that we call "song."

    ----

    Music is a strange and useless thing.
    It doesn’t offer cover from the storm.
    It doesn’t really ease the sting
    Of living, or nourish us, or keep us warm.

    And people spend their lives in search of sound,
    Learning how to juggle bits of noise,
    And by their swift illusions to confound
    The heart with fleeting and evasive joys.

    Yet I am full of quaking gratitude
    That this exalted folly still exists,
    That in an age of cold computer mood
    A piper can still whistle in the mists.
    His notes are pebbles falling into time.
    How sweetly mad it is, and how sublime!

    --- Gene Lees

    “'It is, Hilaire Belloc once wrote, 'the best of all trades to make songs, and the second best to sing them.'

    “As one who has been privileged for some years to make his living doing both, I concur. Singing is more fun. Writing is more work. But the writing of your ‘perfect song’ gives you an inexpressible pleasure, one that is heightened by the thought that others, hearing it later, will perhaps derive a pleasure from it too.

    “A friend of mine described seeing composer Harold (“Over the Rainbow”) Arlen stop still in the old La Guardia Airport when one of his melodies came over the sound system; a look of puzzled wonder filled his face. The crowd moved on around him, no one among them knowing him, but many and perhaps most of them knowing the song.

    “In the French lyrics of ‘L’ame des poets’ (‘The Soul of Poets’) the great Charles Trenet wrote: ‘Long after the poets have disappeared, their songs still run in the streets.”

    “We never know, when we write a song – at least those of us who are fortunate enough to do so professionally, with a reasonable hope of its exposure to the public – where it will end up. My friend Johnny Mandel [still alive & well and arranging for the likes of Diana Krall] who wrote, among many superb melodies ‘The Shadow of Your Smile,’ quipped to me one day: ‘I do very well in elevators.’

    “It is commonplace for songwriters to be told by a new acquaintance that he or she fell in love or had a great romance or got married to the accompaniment of one of their songs. I usually make some such joke as, ‘I hope you won’t hold me responsible.’ But this is only to hide an embarrassed pleasure. Therein lies one of the subtlest thrills of song writing, particularly lyric writing: the totality of the communication. People memorize your thoughts, playwrights and novelists rarely have that experience.

    “But at the time you are actually doing the writing, which is a lonely business --- all writing is lonely --- the chief thrill is that of craftsmanship. Boris Vian, the French novelist and lyricist who died all too young, once said that he was more proud of his lyrics than his novels. The lyric is the most exquisitely difficult literary form of them all. It is MUCH more difficult to write lyrics WELL, than it is to write poetry [for reasons which Gene Lees explored wonderfully in his writings: may I recommend his THE MODERN RHYMING DICTIONARY whose 50 page introduction offers so much more than the title implies.]

    One last thought, a reiteration of Gene Lees thoughts about “Studying the Masters.” His purpose, said Lees “is to help define the excellent in lyric writing. I have nothing to tell you about how to make money in the music business. There are other such books although some of them seem directed more toward making their authors money than making YOU money.

    “The principles I describe apply to ALL kinds of lyrics, from country & western lyrics, some of which are very good, to Broadway show lyrics, some of which are very bad. In general however, the highest standard of lyric writing has been set by the theater, and I would recommend that any beginner make a study of Broadway musical scores, particularly the older ones . . .

    “Indeed, to ignore the work of one’s predecessors is to waste a lot of time discovering for yourself what others have already learned. You’d be a fool to try to ‘invent’ counterpoint when you can look to Bach to see how it is done.

    “When Queen Victoria complained to William Gladstone that there were not many good preachers, he said: ‘Ma’am, there are not many good ANYTHING.”

    Gene Lees, co-composer of 'Quiet Nights of Quiet 'Stars,' 'Dindi,' 'Someone to Light Up My Life,' 'This Happy Madness' and (for influential jazz pianist Bill Evans) the words to 'Waltz for Debby,' was a very good lyricist.

  16. #16
    Bump....

    because I've been re-reading Lees' very fine book, Singers and the Song. Well actually I've only been "sort of" reading it. I keep it in my bedroom in an easy to access spot and when I find myself up there waiting for an event to finish like say the end of a washing machine cycle that has 5 or 10 minutes to go I find myself once again re-reading this book, which is easy to do when one considers that it is a collection of essays rather than a complete volume. Each essay is worth looking at a second (or more) time. Today, I finished the essay on Jo Stafford, i.e. GI Jo.

    If I am correct in assuming that the music of the pre-Rock era is your cup of tea may I suggest that you consider this book?

    Larry

  17. #17

    QUEEN LATIFAH -- "Quiet Night(s) of Quiet Stars"

    Siriusly Sinatra just played my second favorite version of the Antonio Carlos Jobim classic, "Quiet Night(s) of Quiet Stars." The lyricist, Canadian-born Gene Lees wrote the words to this, and four other A.C. Jobim songs -- given their definitive treatment by our favorite singer in 1967. Gene died in 2010, so he had three years to enjoy this version by Queen Latifah. Bet he loved it! Not all recordings are equal -- the sonic sound stage on this one is merely magnificent. From the "Trav'lin Light" album whose every track is terrific.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cITI7VJqDdI

  18. #18

    Taking a break from the music to re-read favorite thoughts on song writing

    After listening to Queen Latifah's lovely version of QUIET NIGHTS OF QUIET STARS, thought of Gene Lees -- a poem he wrote, titled simply, "Sonnet." It's like something my mother would have written (it's that good!) I know Mom would have appreciated Mr. Lees' perfectly poetic summing-up of the mystery of the shared joy that we call "song." [Note this is a poem, not a copyright song lyric.]

    ----

    Music is a strange and useless thing.
    It doesn’t offer cover from the storm.
    It doesn’t really ease the sting
    Of living, or nourish us, or keep us warm.

    And people spend their lives in search of sound,
    Learning how to juggle bits of noise,
    And by their swift illusions to confound
    The heart with fleeting and evasive joys.

    Yet I am full of quaking gratitude
    That this exalted folly still exists,
    That in an age of cold computer mood
    A piper can still whistle in the mists.
    His notes are pebbles falling into time.
    How sweetly mad it is, and how sublime!

    -- Gene Lees

    “'It is, Hilaire Belloc once wrote, 'the best of all trades to make songs, and the second best to sing them.'

    “As one who has been privileged for some years to make his living doing both, I concur. Singing is more fun. Writing is more work. But the writing of your ‘perfect song’ gives you an inexpressible pleasure, one that is heightened by the thought that others, hearing it later, will perhaps derive a pleasure from it too.

    “A friend of mine described seeing composer Harold (“Over the Rainbow”) Arlen stop still in the old La Guardia Airport when one of his melodies came over the sound system; a look of puzzled wonder filled his face. The crowd moved on around him, no one among them knowing him, but many and perhaps most of them knowing the song.

    “In the French lyrics of ‘L’ame des poets’ (‘The Soul of Poets’) the great Charles Trenet wrote: ‘Long after the poets have disappeared, their songs still run in the streets.”

    “We never know, when we write a song – at least those of us who are fortunate enough to do so professionally, with a reasonable hope of its exposure to the public – where it will end up. My friend Johnny Mandel [still alive & well and arranging for the likes of Diana Krall] who wrote, among many superb melodies ‘The Shadow of Your Smile,’ quipped to me one day: ‘I do very well in elevators.’

    “It is commonplace for songwriters to be told by a new acquaintance that he or she fell in love or had a great romance or got married to the accompaniment of one of their songs. I usually make some such joke as, ‘I hope you won’t hold me responsible.’ But this is only to hide an embarrassed pleasure. Therein lies one of the subtlest thrills of song writing, particularly lyric writing: the totality of the communication. People memorize your thoughts, playwrights and novelists rarely have that experience.

    “But at the time you are actually doing the writing, which is a lonely business --- all writing is lonely --- the chief thrill is that of craftsmanship. Boris Vian, the French novelist and lyricist who died all too young, once said that he was more proud of his lyrics than his novels. The lyric is the most exquisitely difficult literary form of them all. It is MUCH more difficult to write lyrics WELL, than it is to write poetry [for reasons which Gene Lees explored wonderfully in his writings: may I recommend his THE MODERN RHYMING DICTIONARY whose 50 page introduction offers so much more than the title implies.]

    One last thought, a reiteration of Gene Lees thoughts about “Studying the Masters.” His purpose, said Lees “is to help define the excellent in lyric writing. I have nothing to tell you about how to make money in the music business. There are other such books although some of them seem directed more toward making their authors money than making YOU money.

    “The principles I describe apply to ALL kinds of lyrics, from country & western lyrics, some of which are very good, to Broadway show lyrics, some of which are very bad. In general however, the highest standard of lyric writing has been set by the theater, and I would recommend that any beginner make a study of Broadway musical scores, particularly the older ones . . .

    “Indeed, to ignore the work of one’s predecessors is to waste a lot of time discovering for yourself what others have already learned. You’d be a fool to try to ‘invent’ counterpoint when you can look to Bach to see how it is done.

    “When Queen Victoria complained to William Gladstone that there were not many good preachers, he said: ‘Ma’am, there are not many good ANYTHING.”

    Gene Lees, co-composer of 'Quiet Nights of Quiet 'Stars,' 'Dindi,' 'Someone to Light Up My Life,' 'This Happy Madness' and (for influential jazz pianist Bill Evans) the words to 'Waltz for Debby,' was a very good lyricist.
    Last edited by Mark Blackburn; 03-14-2019 at 06:19 PM. Reason: 4-line limit on lyrics

  19. #19

    Sinatra and "singing S's"

    [Just recalled an anecdote shared in my Amazon review for a book by Gene Lees]

    " . . . I know what it's like to treasure every word Sinatra says to you (he once directed 50 words my way) and so it seems perfectly natural that Lees never stopped thinking about what Frank said: That seemingly throw-away remark prompted Lees to reflect, deeply, years later in his advice to those of us who'd love to write at least "one good song lyric."

    "Recording engineers," said Lees, "don't like the letter `S' because it presents them with an equalization problem. If they boost the high frequencies, the `esses' become exaggerated." (Sirius Radio can sometimes be terrible for this, when your reception is going a little `funny' just as Lees wrote, in the days before satellite radio: "Turn up the highs (treble) on your stereo - you notice the attenuation of the `S'."

    Then, going further into reflection (remember, all this stemming from a 'chance' remark by Frank Sinatra) Lees said, "The prejudice (against using a lot of `esses' in song lyrics) seems to me now, to date back to a time before high fidelity recording: Ira Gershwin wrote "'S'Wonderful" in the 1930s - and he used esses all over the place, apparently having fun with them, if not poking fun at the prejudice."

    Which set Lees to "wondering about the source of this bias? Scholars tell us (or at least hypothesize) that the letter was (given that shape) like a snake to designate the sound a serpent makes. And . . . if that's so . . .the fear of snakes may underlie the prejudice."

    Which brought Gene Lees back to his 'Whatever made me think of all this?' moment . . . that long ago evening in a recording studio with Sinatra, by way of an anecdote about 'The Bard.'

    "The `S' problem is a problem only in overuse," he says, recalling the line from Mcbeath's soliloquy, "If the assassination, could trammel up the consequences, and catch with his surcease, success."

    "That's pretty bad," said Lees. "In four syllables Shakespeare gives the actor a phrase that is hard to pronounce and quite unattractive when you DO get it out."

    "As for whatever reservations recording engineers may have," said Lees, "I am reminded of what Sinatra said to his engineer at that (same) session when the latter asked him to stand further from the orchestra since their proximity was creating a `separation' difficulty."

    "'That's YOUR problem!' Sinatra said pleasantly."

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