Saturday, March 25, 2017

Doug Ramsey on Gene Lees

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

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, and over the lake-or the river, or the sea. Sometimes Japanese lanterns hung in 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.

The sound of the saxophones, a sweet and often insipid yellow when only four of them were used, turned to a woody umber when, later, the baritone was added. The sound of three trombones in harmony had a regal grandeur. Four trumpets could sound like flame, yet in ballads could be damped by harmon mutes to a citric distant loneliness. Collectively, these elements made up the sound of a big band.

It is one that will not go away. The recordings made then are constantly reissued and purchased in great quantities. Time-Life re-creates in stereo the arrangements of that vanished era, while the Reader's Digest and the Book of the Month Club continue to reissue many of the originals. Throughout the United States and Canada, college and high school students gather themselves into that basic formation—now expanded to five trumpets, four trombones, five saxes doubling woodwinds, piano, bass, drums, and maybe guitar and French horns too-to make their own music in that style. By some estimates there are as many as 30,000 of these bands. The sound has gone around the world, and you will hear it on variety shows of Moscow television—a little clumsy, to be sure, but informed with earnest intention.

Why? Why does this sound haunt our culture?”
- Gene Lees

Although their primary purpose was to serve as the Foreword to the 1998 re-publication of Gene Lees’ Singers and the Song, Doug Ramsey’s introductory remarks also served another purpose, that of giving us considerable insight into Gene Lees himself and his significance to Jazz.

As the page header for this blog states, it is as much about Jazz writers as it is about Jazz and Jazz musicians and occasionally the editorial staff at JazzProfiles likes to turn its attention to essays about those scribes and critics whose descriptive and analytical skills do so much to enhance our appreciation of the music.

For fifty years [Gene died in 2010] as the editor of Downbeat, contributor to music magazines, writer of liner and insert notes author of many books about all aspects of Jazz and its makers and editor of the Jazzletter, no one has ever rated higher in the pantheon of Jazz authors than Gene Lees.

Singers and the Song explores an art that originated in a time when to say "good popular music" was not to utter an oxymoron. It is one of two books that are indispensable to a deep appreciation of the vocal music that America has contributed to the world's fund of lasting cultural achievements.

In American Popular Song, published in 1972, Alec Wilder used his formidable learning, analytical ability, wit, and strong opinions to treat his subject with a seriousness it had never before received. At once scholarly and entertaining, Wilder scrutinized the work of songwriters from Jerome Kern to Frank Loesser. He discussed more than 900 songs and provided annotated analyses of 384 of them. Erudite and acerbic, a wonderful songwriter himself, Wilder imposed a minimum level of acceptable quality. He explained his criteria with clarity and elegance, lashed the best writers for mediocrity, and praised brilliance in genius and journeymen alike. His book, it is safe to say, is on the shelf of every songwriter, singer, and critic who reveres the popular song tradition.

Next to it, or nearby, is almost certain to be Gene Lees' Singers and the Song, first published in 1987, now polished and expanded into an even more valuable volume. Wilder achieved insight through his composer's formal knowledge and craftsman's sense as one of the last great songwriters of the classic period that ended in the mid-1950s. Lees brings to his consideration of popular song a creator's involvement, a performing artist's knowledge of what works, and a journalist's clear-eyed powers of observation.

Gene Lees the singer has performed and recorded with some of the best jazz artists of our time. He has a compendious knowledge of singing and songwriting, among a staggering variety of other subjects. He is a perpetual student with an omnivorous need to know why and how people do what they do. He wrote an unorthodox rhyming dictionary patterned after not English but French rhyming dictionaries. An important lyricist, he fashioned English words for several of the songs of Antonio Carlos Jobim. This Happy Madness is one of the finest sets of lyrics to grace a Jobim song in any language. Lees' words to Corcovado are a part of the cultural atmosphere of the second half of the century. His work has been recorded by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Shirley Horn, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Nancy Wilson, Joe Williams, and indeed just about every important singer of recent decades.

Most writing about jazz and popular music, as sophisticated readers recognize with a wince, is done by fans who have become writers. Most are cheerleaders, press agents without portfolio who leave in their printed wakes evaluations and pronouncements supported by raw opinion and nerve endings. Some go to the trouble of learning about the music beyond personalities and trends. The best of them transcend their star worship and their proclivities to promotion and advocacy.

A few gain critical skills and faculties that allow them to produce work helpful to listeners who want a better understanding of the music. The late Willis Conover, titan of the Voice of America, often described himself as a "professional fan" and was the best of that breed, but he transformed himself into a superb writer about jazz and a respected critic, although he would have shrunk in horror from that denomination.

Gene Lees brings to jazz writing the skills of a trained and experienced journalist. He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and grew up forty miles from there in St. Catharines on the Lake Ontario shore, near where Canada and the United States share Niagara Falls. He and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler were high school friends. His first job at a newspaper was on the Hamilton Spectator, covering city hall, school-board meetings, ribbon cuttings, political speeches, crime and fires and accidents. At the Toronto Telegram, he reported on the courts. He was beaten into the shape of a newspaperman by tough editors who demanded accuracy and clear storytelling. At the Montreal Star, he covered labor, then became an assistant city editor and a correspondent in Europe. The Louisville Times lured him to Kentucky and made him music and drama editor. He thought he should have a better understanding of what he was writing about, joined a drama group, and resumed the formal study of music, a pursuit he continues today. Awarded a John Ogden Reid Fellowship of $5000, a substantial windfall for a newspaperman in 1958, he returned to Europe and spent a year studying music, film, and drama festivals and arts funding.

Lees had long been captivated by jazz and insisted, in his writing for the Times, in treating it with the same respect that he applied to his writings about classical music. In his youth, the big bands were years away from foundering. He absorbed their music and was permanently affected by the bands, their musicians, and the culture that swirled around them.

Throughout Singers and the Song, he melds with his thoroughgoing research the sense of wonder and pleasure that grew in the boy listening to good bands that stopped near St. Catharines and played by the lake.

The beginning of the second piece in this book, the remarkable Pavilion in the Rain, is a masterpiece of writing that is evocative without succumbing to sentiment. The first two paragraphs capture a time and a thousand places that shared a cultural mood. Pavilion in the Rain goes on to defy the conventional thought about why an era passed. It makes a case so sound that the reader wonders why it took thirty years to emerge. It is Lees at the top of his game, which is illumination.

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 that elevated it significantly above its decades as a fan magazine. In his own writing, he honed his ability to find the center of a performance, a trend, a style, a person, as in his 1962 article about Brazilian musicians who found themselves culturally stranded and bewildered in New York during the first wave of the bossa nova phenomenon. It was one of the best things ever to appear in Down Beat, and Lees wonderfully expands its essence in Urn Abraco No Tom, his essay on Jobim.

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. Lees' community may seem to be that of jazz musicians, but the 1500 or so subscribers to the Jazzletter include a sophisticated mix of players, composers, arrangers, prominent writers about the arts, and a fair percentage of listeners who are physicians, lawyers, computer professionals, airline pilots, professors, and actors. 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.

When he devotes an issue to a topic that seems apart from music and subscribers complain, he refunds their money and sends them on their way. That happened when a few readers grumbled about his examination of U.S. health care reform and the Canadian health system. Lees thought that musicians and jazz listeners would be concerned about one of the most pressing economic and social issues of the 1990s. They were; his mail responding to the essay was heavy and largely positive. The letters he printed reflected a wide and intelligent range of thought about a troubling societal problem.

When writing about music and musicians, Lees is not reluctant to move out of the tight little categories on which so many jazz devotees insist. The pieces on Julius La Rosa and Edith Piaf may have seemed out of context to some Jazzletter readers, but they illuminate (there's that essential word again) the condition of the artist, indeed the human condition. I showed the La Rosa story to a friend of mine who is an anesthesiologist. He is from a close Italian family that gave him support and encouragement, a family quite unlike La Rosa's. Reading the piece, he recognized his life and his family, and the difference, and wept.

In the foreword to the first edition of Singers and the Song, Grover Sales wrote that only I.F. Stone's Weekly compared to Gene Lees' Jazzletter. Izzy Stone's meticulously researched hell-raising is gone. Lees comes from the tradition that produced Stone. He applies its values to a division of the arts that gets little of the loving, stern, journalistic attention it needs. The Jazzletter has been his demanding taskmaster for nearly two decades. From time to time he tells his readers that he is thinking about giving it up. Let us hope that they continue to dissuade him, because the Jazzletter is the source of books like Singers and the Song.”
— Doug Ramsey

Doug Ramsey has a distinguished history as a newspaper reporter in Seattle and television reporter and anchorman in San Francisco, New Orleans, and New York City. He has been writing about music for forty years. He is the author of Jazz Matters: Reflections on the Music and Some of Its Makers and Take Five: The Public and Privates Lives of Paul Desmond.

You can visit him at his blog by going here.

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