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Gene Lees, jazz writer

Matt Schudel


It just so happened that I renewed my membership in the Jazz Journalists Association on Friday, the same day I heard that Gene Lees had died. I've been writing about jazz since 1992, and Gene Lees has been an inspiration from the beginning.

I realize that hardly anyone in the wider world has heard of Lees, but in jazz he is nothing less than a legend. He was a critic, biographer and lyricist who was superb at all three disciplines. He had strong views on a lot of things, from rock-and-roll (hated it) to art (he was a decent painter) to good writing, in prose and music.

He maintained that the finest song lyrics could stand up to best poetry in the language. The greatest song lyric of all, he believed, was "Stardust" by Mitchell Parish, especially the opening verse:

And now the purple dusk of twilight time
Steals across the meadows of my heart
High up in the sky the little stars climb
Always reminding me that we're apart

Lees called it "the single greatest lyric in the English language. ... You can take all the poetry in the English language, and nothing lives up to that thing, not Shakespeare, nothing."

Lees wrote some memorable lyrics of his own, most notably with Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim. In a passage that is representative of Lees's strengths and sometimes self-important weaknesses as a writer, he described how he met Jobim and began collaborating with him:

"At the end of 1961 I went on a State Department tour of South America with the Paul Winter Sextet. I wanted to go because I'd heard Joâo Gilberto and knew some of the songs and I wanted to meet Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim. When we arrived in Rio de Janeiro I got their number and called up. I went to a rehearsal at Jobim's house and he and I got drunk, and we got drunk many times after that.
"I had been experimenting with lyrics, but not professionally. I told Jobim that his songs could be done in English and I showed him what could be done. He immediately gave the songs I'd written in English to publishers in New York. I wrote Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars [Corcovado] on a bus going to Belo Horizonte [northwest of Rio de Janeiro] and mailed it back to him in Rio. It was my first professional lyric."

Here are the haunting opening lines:

Quiet nights of quiet stars,
Quiet chords from my guitar,
Floating on the silence
That surrounds us.

The song has been recorded hundreds of times by such notable singers as Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett and Diana Krall, and even by Lees himself, who was a pretty good singer in his own right.

But Lees's favorite version was by Frank Sinatra, whom he considered the Shakespeare of singers. Here's Sinatra singing "Corcovado" in 1967 (along with several other songs in the bossa nova style), accompanied by the composer, Antonio Carlos Jobim, on guitar:

Lees wrote another set of memorable lyrics for one of pianist Bill Evans's better-known tunes, "Waltz for Debby," performed here by Evans and Tony Bennett from of the greatest jazz albums ever made.

The song's wistful closing lyrics could be considered something of a fond farewell to the protean talent that was Gene Lees:

Someday all too soon
She'll grow up and she'll leave her dolls
!nd her prince and that silly old bear.
When she goes they will cry
As she whispers, "Good-bye."
They will miss her, I fear,
But then so will I.

By Matt Schudel  |  April 24, 2010; 3:08 PM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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