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Gene Lees, 1928-2010: Someone Who Lit Up My Life

Dr. Judith Schlesinger By

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On April 23, 2010 we all lost Gene Lees, the incomparable jazz writer, historian, and lyricist. I also lost an irreplaceable mentor and friend.

Unlike the great pianist Eddie Higgins—who died criminally unsung in 2009—Gene was granted a New York Times obituary. Published on April 27, it was written by Peter Keepnews, who attributes Gene's contentiousness to his strong and thoroughly informed opinions, rather than the inherent pugnaciousness that others have emphasized. While we all had to wrestle with him, I found such sparring to be noisy but ultimately harmless, like puppies in a box. In any case, there was a great deal more to him than that.

There was a period in the 1990s when Gene and I were e-mailing almost daily. I saved most of these posts, and have been reading them again now, slowly. Today I found a passage that tracks his legendary feistiness to early bullying: "because Jim [Gayder] always had to protect me, because I was always frightened as a child, I became as an adult incapable of backing down on a moral issue." (3/31/98)

Thing is, virtually everything was a moral issue for Gene. While he claimed to hate religion (4/18/97), he certainly had his own, and it was based on his complete rejection of b***s*** and what he judged to be second-rate and/or mean-spirited efforts in any form or field.

Gene had many other grudges as well. In fact, no public icon was safe: "I hated Popeye. I also hated Donald Duck, nasty little bastard, and I wasn't much fonder of Mickey and Minnie Mouse. I kind of liked Goofy. Steve Allen and I have been informally collecting a list of things one is supposed to like and doesn't. My list includes Billie Holiday. Steve and I both dislike champagne. I also dislike opera. All opera, excepting Carmen and Bizet. Loathe Verdi and Wagner. I ain't got no couth. I hate that kind of overblown voice production. And too many opera singers sing out of tune." (2/7/97)

Oh, I just bet that he's peeved, wherever he is, that his "Corcovado" lyrics are the ones in everybody's spotlight now. Gene was forever dogged by that almost-rhyme he made so long ago between "stars" and "guitar," as unforgiving of his own first-timer's mistake as he was kind and generous to fledgling writers like me. So many of us were variously challenged, chastised, and nurtured, printed multiply in his Jazzletter, inspired, and introduced (in my case to Steve Allen, which further changed my life).

"Go for it all the way," he told me. "Be on the frontier of something." (2/27/95) And later: "One must always go after one's own highest level of writing, and then pray that somebody's going to like it." (8/29/95). Given how demanding he could be, his praise of my early efforts was especially precious, and has propelled me ever since: "you have no idea how extraordinarily well you wrote—imagery, simile, wit, euphony. I read your piece aloud to Janet [his wife] last night. She was blown away by it." (3/31/98)

We had many enlightening and hilarious conversations despite meeting only once: there was a brief howdy-do at the Greenwich Village club Knickerbocker where he performed his talk/sing thing in late June of 1996. Alas, as viscerally musical as he was, his vocal stylings fell somewhere between Maurice Chevalier and Rex Harrison. But that insider patter was priceless.

Sure, there were times when his fulminations were so feedback-immune that I felt I could put the receiver down, walk away, make a sandwich, consume it, and return, without his having noticed my absence. I never did, of course—instead, I scribbled endless notes. I didn't want to miss an incisive thought or a brilliantly-turned phrase.

We fell out of touch in recent years, partly because his physical deterioration drove him into miserable retreat. Always the wordsmith, he may well have parsed "invalid" as "in-valid," but he was still sharp and vital on his way out.

Since I hadn't talked to him in months, the intensity of my grief surprised me. I had a strong need to salute Gene in my own way, and—no surprise—it was a song. My fiancé Norm Lotz is a bassist, and I sing; since I've always loved the pairing of Jobim's melody and Gene's words, and especially in "Someone to Light Up My Life," we performed it the other day. Norm was strong as always, while I barely got through it, being so wobbly and full of tears.

Appropriately, Gene's lyrics include this gentle benediction, which makes it one of the most generous break-up songs ever written:

Go on your way/with a cloudless blue sky above

May all your days/be a wonderful song of love

Open your arms and sing/of all the hidden hopes you've ever treasured

And live out your life/in peace
(Jobim/Lees 1958)

As it happens, I would deliberately summon that tender imagery as an antidote whenever Gene aggravated me—because if you truly want to know his heart, you have to read his lyrics.


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