Saturday, April 24, 2010

R. I. P. Gene Lees (1928-2010)

Yesterday, Terry Teachout passed on the sad news of the death of songwriter Gene Lees. Lees wrote the unforgettable English-language lyrics to Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Corcovado"--
Quiet thoughts and quiet dreams, quiet walks by quiet streams,
and a window that looks out on the mountains and the sea, oh how lovely.
--which alone would be a sufficient monument for any mortal. But Lees was at least as well known as a prose writer, and if you've not read his writings on jazz, you have a treat in store.

A good place to start is with Singers and the Song II, a collection of pieces from his Jazzletter newsletter. Along with essays on Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Yip Harburg, and many more, it includes a profile of Johnny Mercer that's one of the finest pieces of biographical writing about an artist I've ever encountered, one that makes both the art and the man come to life:
I know two or three people who despised Johnny Mercer. For others, it wasn't that simple. . . . John was as generous in his praise of good songwriters as he was quietly critical of the shallower practitioners of the craft. As for me, I liked John. A lot. And we got along, perhaps because we shared the lyricist's paranoia, which John once perfectly expressed in a single line: "You get tired of being everybody's lyric boy." He was referring to all the lead sheets and demo tapes sent to you by musicians who think lyrics are dashed off in a moment from ideas picked casually out of the air. Music, as they see it, is the important art. Everybody uses words, don't they?
Set alongside sharp analyses of Mercer's lyrics--including a study of consonance in "I Thought About You" that is revelatory--Lees' descriptions of Mercer's frequent, alcohol-fueled descents into pointedly cruel verbal abuse are heartbreaking, making us ache for this man of such great talent and so little happiness. The portrait in Singers and the Song II actually outdoes Lees' later biography of Mercer, its brevity sharpening its punch.

The most memorable piece in Singers and the Song II, however, is "Pavilion in the Rain," a lyrical, detailed reconstruction and analysis of the big band era. The opening paragraph gives a sense of the tone:
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 note of wistfulness may seem too much at first, but by the time Lees has finished explaining the rise and fall of the big bands--having brought in copyright law, urban rail networks, remote broadcast technology, taxation, unionization, and more--it is clear what we had, temporarily, how lucky we were to have it, and how much we've lost. Lees earns that note of loss.

Terry Teachout, who knew Lees, has more at About Last Night, plus links to obituaries and some more extensive reflections. Raise a glass to Lees tonight, and if you're enjoying a quiet night of quiet stars, be grateful.

1 comment:

  1. I have lifted many a glass in honor of the late, great Gene Lees. Some during my brief time with him at his home in Ojai, California, and many others following his thoughts of him brightened my day. I miss the man enormously. Bravo, Gene Lees! Bravo!!!

    -- Steven Kunes