Reflections of Gene Lees on His Birthday
by Harrigan Logan
Harrigan Logan knows Gene Lees because her father, director/producer/playwright Joshua Logan (Annie Get Your Gun, South Pacific, Mister Roberts, Picnic, etc.,) was one of Gene’s dear friends. Harrigan is a singer/ songwriter/ musician and among the favorite comments she has received for her music is this from Rosemary Clooney, "the minute the music started playing I burst into tears and reached for the Kleenex. That song is amazing. You sing dead center on the note which is exactly where you want your voice to be. Perfect." You can learn more about Harrigan and listen to her music at her website: www.harriganlogan.com
When Gene Lees celebrated his birthday on February 8th 2006 at a quiet dinner in Meiners Oaks, California, Canada also celebrated the birth of one of its exceptional native sons. When Gene’s book, You Can’t Steal A Gift: Dizzy, Clark, Milt, and Nat was published in 2001, Glen Woodcock of the Toronto Sun wrote, "Let me get straight to the point: Gene Lees is the best writer on the topic of jazz in the world today." When prominent jazz critic and journalist, Nat Hentoff was contacted for this article, he said "in many years to come, Gene Lees will be one of the few writers on jazz whose works will be permanently valuable because of the quality of his perceptions, the depth of his research, and his personal knowledge of the musicians about whom he writes." Gene’s contributions to jazz are enough to ensure him a place of honor in Canadian cultural history, but Gene’s other accomplishments are also remarkable.
Gene wrote the English lyrics to Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars (Corcovado) for Brazil’s most celebrated composer, Antonio Carlos Jobim; it is one of the more famous songs of the twentieth century. He wrote Bridges with Milton Nascimento and Yesterday I Heard The Rain with Armando Manzaneiro. Those and other Lees songs have been recorded by Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee (one of Gene’s favorite singers and best friends), Tony Bennett, and hundreds of other singers and jazz instrumentalists. Three of his lyrics are included in Reading Lyrics: More Than 1,000 of the Century's Finest Lyrics, edited and with an introduction by Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball. The Lees lyrics included in the book are Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars, Waltz For Debby which he wrote with brilliant jazz pianist and composer, Bill Evans, and The Right To Love with music by Lalo Schifrin.
In 2004, Gene received his fifth ASCAP award; The Timothy White Award for Outstanding Musical Biography for Portrait of Johnny: The Life of John Herndon Mercer. In the same year he opened his home to two different film crews; one from Brazil and the other from the BBC. Both crews were after the same subjects: jazz and Jobim.
In the Fall of 2005 he sat patiently while a reporter from the Parisian magazine Jazzman, interviewed him for several hours. The resulting article is a paean to Gene. (At Home ...with Gene Lees, Décembre 2005, #119.) He is celebrated in France for his contributions to jazz and also for his songwriting with Charles Aznavour. Gene adapted some of Aznavour’s songs into English; Paris Is At Her Best In May, For Me, Formidable and Venice Blue. Gene also wrote much of the material that was featured in Aznavour’s first Broadway solo concert, The World of Charles Aznavour, 1965.
In 2004 Gene published his second novel, Song Lake Summer in the Jazzletter, his own magazine which he publishes twelve times a year and exclusively writes for.
Gene founded the Jazzletter in 1981, devoting it to history and biography. He’d earned enough money with The Modern Rhyming Dictionary: How to Write Lyrics (Cherry Lane, 1981), that he didn’t have to work for anybody else. He sent letters to all the musicians he knew and "asked if they’d be interested in this magazine and I had a tremendous response." The Jazzletter, begun on a typewriter, "would not have survived had it not been moved to a computer. I got my first computer in 1984." Seven volumes of Jazzletter essays have been published by Oxford University Press, Yale University Press, and Cassell. No other publication in jazz history has produced as many anthologies and the magazine is still going strong after twenty-five years without a single advertisement.
In the summer of 2005, Gene become so excited about his article on Artie Shaw for the Jazzletter, he's expanded that writing into his eighteenth book and is almost finished with it. At the beginning of March 2006 he "got a groove going" with his writing on Shaw and has to "consciously stop myself in the evening after pounding out three thousand words during the day. I have to consciously pull myself away from the work and tell myself to ‘relax, rest, you’ve done enough for the day.’
"For people who are artists," he told me, "the work is the life. It defines and justifies your very existence. If you’re not actively doing a project you’re nothing in your own mind. You can’t retire from it. There is no way out. You are your work. You’re life is defined by it."
I told Gene that in the early 1980s my father visited Irving Berlin, then in his nineties. Josh had directed This Is The Army, Annie Get Your Gun and Mr. President with songs by Mr. Berlin and they were good friends. Pop came home shaking his head. "He doesn’t think he’s written anything important." I was incredulous. Irving Berlin doesn’t think he’s written anything important? Gene explained, "Mr. Berlin was likely depressed because he hadn’t done anything lately." As it happened Mr. Berlin hadn’t written a new song in twenty years. Gene said when an artist is not doing his art he agonizes over the questions "who am I really and what is the point of life?"
On February 17th, nine days after his 78th birthday, Gene sat in the control booth of Capitol Records’ Studio A, "one of the best recording studios in the world, "as coproducer for an album of classical music written by his friend, composer and arranger, Claus Ogerman. The four pieces, Nightwings, Prelude and Chant, Sarabande-Fantasie and Concerto Lirico, originally composed for violin and orchestra, were recorded in duet by world renowned pianist, Jean-Yves Thibaudet who Gene feels is "one of the truly great pianists of our time" and Gene’s brilliant young protégé, violinist Yué Deng. The recording was done for Decca Records. (http://www.deccaclassics.com)
Gene Lees is the only person I know who’s tweaked a Pope’s poems and been praised by said Pope for his efforts. In 1984 Gene was approached by the record producer, Gigi Campi, to set the late Pope Paul II’s poems to new music. Mr. Campi had read Gene’s The Modern Rhyming Dictionary: How to Write Lyrics and felt he was the man for the job. Gene was very reluctant to do it at all. "The translation of foreign lyrics is nearly impossible because you cannot possibly make a verbatim translation that will fit the music, and you also lose the rhymes."
The poems were written by the Pope in the late 1940s when he was a young priest in Krakow; the original Polish had been translated into Italian and some of the Italian translations were set to music. Gene "read the poems in English, French, Spanish and Italian," languages he is fluent in, "and found variance in all of them. Nothing ultimately can be translated," he told me. Gene thought "I don’t want to write what the Italians think the Pope said," so he did what he always does, he consulted an expert: Gene contacted the distinguished Polish film composer, Bronislau Kaper. (Mr. Kaper cowrote the words and music to the song Hi-lili Hi-lo with Helen Deutsch and his film scores include Green Dolphin Street, Butterfield 8, and Somebody Up There Likes Me.)
Gene spent an afternoon at Mr. Kaper’s home in Los Angeles while the composer explained exactly what the Polish words meant. Gene made crude but accurate translations; then Gene constructed lyrics, using his own translations of the Pope’s poems. After he’d done that he wrote two original lyrics to bookend the project: The Mystery of Man which opened the evening and Let It Live which closed it. The songs were to be sung by Sarah Vaughan with a full orchestra in front of a live audience at the Tonhalle, in Dusseldorf, on June 30th, 1984. As well, the performance was being filmed for television.
When Miss Vaughan arrived in Dusseldorf, barely four days before the live performance, she didn’t know the songs. "She had a tremendous technique," Gene explained, "and like all people with big techniques, she trusted it, so consequently she hadn’t learned the material. But this stuff was difficult and when she saw the music and heard it, it scared the hell out of her." She learned the music because Gene rehearsed her every moment right up until she put on her beaded gown and stepped out onto the stage; she was pitch perfect, faultless and magnificent. I’ve listened to the live recording and heard the thunderous applause afterward.
When the Pope saw the television broadcast, he turned to his aide and said, "I am only an amateur - this man is an artist."
In the last few years, Gene has been slowly and often painfully recovering from a list of ailments including open heart surgery. Because of this, Gene’s friend, the Canadian conductor, arranger and composer, Marc Fortier, wanted to have a birthday tribute written about Gene. "I want him to know how loved he is now," Marc told me.
Both Marc and Gene deeply mourned the loss of their great friend, composer, conductor, musical arranger and trumpet player, Robert Farnon in April, 2005. When I contacted him for this article, Johnny Mandel told me "I stole everything from Farnon." Gene said "Everyone stole from Farnon. And Mandel often says ‘what I know of orchestration is what I tried to steal from Farnon.’"
"I’ve done my best prolific writing on Scotch," Gene once told me, "and my best hangouts with Farnon were on Scotch."
"Growing up in Canada," Gene said, "I had this overwhelming feeling that nobody Canadian could do anything. I was listening to Farnon records one day and was astounded to learn he was Canadian. I was working for the Montréal Star in 1954 and going to Europe. I wrote to Farnon and arranged to meet him in London. We became immediate friends. For years I tried to get Canadian publications to write about him and they always said no. Canadians don’t recognize Canadians. Of course, Bob went to England for the orchestras, which, at the time he left Canada didn’t exist there. He’s got a lyrical melodic sense that’s unsurpassed. He wrote richly romantic music without sinking into the saccharine. Farnon had exquisite taste."
Gene introduced me to Mr. Farnon’s music by playing his score for the 1951 film, Captain Horatio Hornblower starring Gregory Peck. Then he played Farnon’s arrangement of À La Claire Fontaine. "Bob wrote that arrangement when WWII ended. He thought it would be nice to get back to peace time. He wrote it for himself. Marc Fortier calls it a ‘tone poem.’ Farnon took a wisp of a beloved phrase of music and created a masterpiece. Marc played that arrangement at a luncheon for Canadian composers and they all wept when they heard it."
In Gene’s article on Artie Shaw, [Jazzletter, Vol. 23, No. 6] he wrote: "When you are young, in any generation, major public names surround you like great trees. When you grow older, and start losing friends, one day you realize that you don’t have many left. And then there is another dark revelation: even those famous figures are going, and one day it comes to you: They’re clear-cutting the landscape of your life."
I happen to know Gene was writing that article around the time he lost three of his friends, one on top of the other, and the world lost three great film composers; Jerry Goldsmith in July, Elmer Bernstein and Dave Raksin, both in the same week in August, 2004.
If The Russia House is showing on television and I’m visiting the Lees, Gene will holler for me to come into his room and listen to the hauntingly beautiful score by Jerry Goldsmith, featuring Branford Marsalis on saxophone.
Gene is always teaching me something. He’s said to me, more than once, "You are my target audience, Harrigan. As a child of ‘the Beatle generation,’" a phrase he practically spits out it’s so distasteful to him, "you know absolutely nothing about good music." Then he’ll look at me as if he’s just sucked a lemon.
I might weakly mention how much it meant to me to listen to Joni Mitchell or Marvin Gaye when I was a kid, and whether he likes it or not I adore John Lennon with or without The Beatles, but these admissions of my early musical influences move Gene Lees not one whit.
My musical knowledge is assuredly a drop in Gene Lees’ musical bucket and my comprehension is unschooled. Gene knows what he’s listening to; he can read the score, analyze whether or not the music is exquisite, place it in historical context, understand the harmony, recognize the quality of the playing and compare it to the best or worst musicians who ever played which instrument.
My lack of good musical knowledge is redeemed in Gene’s eyes by the kindness of two members of my family who took the time to educate me. My older brother, Tom, has been passionate about jazz since he was a child and he took me to listen to the music every chance he could.
We were underage children when we went to Shelly’s Manhole in Los Angeles to hear Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock. I asked Gene why Mr. Davis kept leaving the stage every so often and then returning after half an hour or so. Was he doing drugs off stage? Gene enlightened me; "He left the stage because he didn’t want to attract attention away from the soloists. Miles knew the audience would keep staring at him even if he wasn’t playing, which they did, because he was so magnetic. He also didn’t want to look stupid with his horn hanging down. Miles would sometimes just go over to the bar and have a brandy. He did that with me. Sometimes we’d just sit at the bar together, talking and drinking brandies. One night Miles walked up behind me and pulled my curly hair. He said ‘you ain’t no ofay’ which is pig latin for foe’ meaning white. The word ‘honkey’ has replaced ‘ofay.’ I liked Miles. And I liked him a lot. Miles was funny and sardonic and dry and sarcastic. He could be an absolute delight."
My second redemptive musical heritage is that my father taught me the songs of Lorenz Hart, Kurt Weill and other giants of the theatre from babyhood, and that early training instilled in me a lifelong love of great lyrics and beautiful melodies. Gene began teaching my father, Joshua Logan, about jazz when they worked together on a musical play and Josh taught Gene about musicals. Josh thought Gene was one of the greatest lyricists there’s ever been. In a recent article for the Jazzletter, Gene referred to my father as, "my late friend and great mentor."
(Josh received a Pulitzer Prize for South Pacific, which he cowrote with Oscar Hammerstein, II. He directed, wrote and/or produced thirty-three Broadway productions; sixteen musicals, seventeen dramatic plays. Half of Josh's work in the theatre was produced before The American Theatre Wing's Tony award was created in 1947, including Annie Get Your Gun (1946). The Broadway plays Josh either wrote, produced and/or directed after 1947 were nominated for forty Tonys and collected twenty-eight trophies. He personally received eleven nominations and took home nine. In The New York Times Book of Broadway, edited by Ben Brantley, two of his plays are listed in the chapter The Unforgettable Productions of the Century. He wrote/produced and/or directed ten films which received a total of thirty-six Academy Award nominations and eleven wins; Picnic, Bus Stop, Sayonara, South Pacific, Mister Roberts, Fanny and Camelot. Six of his films are included in The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made.)
The musical Gene and Josh worked on in 1973 was called Jonathan Wilde; it was based on the novel by Henry Fielding who also wrote Tom Jones. The play was produced by Roger L. Stevens and two inexperienced authors were attached to the libretto. Wilde was never presented onstage not because the songs by Gene and Lalo Schiffrin weren’t great, and not because they hadn’t raised all the money; in a single backer’s audition at Josh’s apartment in New York City they raised over eight million dollars which, in 1973 dollars, was a gigantic sum. So they had the script, the songs and the money but it still couldn’t be produced because the original authors wouldn’t give up their claim to the public domain story of Jonathan Wilde so Gene and Josh could go ahead with their own production.
Over the course of the two years they worked together their friendship grew, which is no surprise, as they are mirror images of each other. We haven’t yet found a single instance where they disagree. On anything. Just the other day I told Gene that my father was bored silly when it came to sports and Gene clutched his stomach in a hearty guffaw. "Me too, me too. The minute anyone says let’s turn on the ball game I’m out of there." Then he shook his head in amazement.
"My God, Harrigan, is there anything Josh and I are not alike in?"
"No," I replied. They are so alike I call Gene, "Josh Jr."
By a wonderful circuitous route of happenstance, Gene telephoned me out of the blue in September 2003. He wanted me to know he’d known my father and had some great stories to tell about him. Gene does things like that. Easily. He is a man of action. In his world there is no time like the present. No second thoughts--do.
I adored Gene Lees the moment I spoke with him on the telephone. Here was my Pop all over again. Gene has the same wit, warmth, charm, hilarity and mental radiance and is as chock full of stories as Josh was. When my father died in 1988 I thought all the light in the world dimmed. The giant soul that was Josh was gone and everyone in the world seemed small by comparison--until I met Gene.
On a recent evening, Gene looked at me across his dining table and made the following pronouncement: "While you were away at school, I knew your father well. For more than a year I worked closely with him. Saw him practically every day. And in the years afterwards we talked on the phone every now and then or exchanged letters. As far as I’m concerned, that makes you family."
He repeated "that makes you," and then he paused and fixed me with a laser beam stare, "fa-mi-ly."
I was touched to hear these words from someone I care for so dearly. As an adopted child I know about making family with people whose blood doesn’t course through my veins. It's simple. People are family if they are in your heart, if life is unimaginable without them, if you’re a better person for knowing them, if you can share your secrets and weather disasters together and still know you are loved. Gene and Janet Lees felt like family to me from our very first phone call. We chattered together like clucking hens, overlapping sentences, interrupting each other’s stories, telling tales about those departed and those still here, laughing heartily every few minutes. A few months later, Janet left a message on my machine, "have Christmas dinner with us."
Gene and Janet Lees reside in the small Southern California town that Frank Capra chose as his setting for Shangri La in his 1937 film, Lost Horizon. Ojai is populated with artists, musicians, writers, spiritual seekers and health spas and the Lees have lived in their graceful home for twenty years. Just down the road is Gene’s dear friend, Roger Kellaway; "the greatest jazz pianist I’ve ever heard and certainly the finest musician with whom I’ve ever written songs."
I was very nervous to meet the Lees, needlessly, as it turned out. I’d parked my car in their circular driveway which is surrounded by oak and eucalyptus trees, walked the gravel path past night blooming jasmine and cautiously stepped into their gracious living room proffering a holiday Poinsettia. I was warmly and winningly embraced from the first "how do you do."
I’d sat in front of a ceiling high Christmas tree that Janet had decorated with glittering ornaments, twinkling lights, mauve satin bows and a host of porcelain angels, basking in the warmth of scintillating, hilarious conversation, feeling right at home. Their behavior was what I’d come to know as parental: a couple in their seventies who’d lived exciting lives, were chock full of insights and anecdotes about extraordinary artists they’d known and worked with, possessed of passionate opinions on everything and ecstatic appreciation of anything that is the very best. Gene has lately decided that Laurence Olivier is better than he thought and taken to quoting Shakespeare at length.
"When you talk about writing, Harrigan," Gene said, "you never even mention Shakespeare. He’s out of the equation. There’s Shakespeare and then there’s everybody else."
Just the other evening Gene told me Shakespeare was his God. He doesn’t care about the plots and stories so much as the language. "I can open up to any page and be gone for half an hour," he said. His favorite play is Hamlet.
"Words have always been crucial to you," I say.
"No, " he said, "not really. Words don’t hold that great an interest for me."
"Yes they do," I insist. "You’re a stickler for exact usage."
"Well, yes, that’s true. Exact usage is essential. I keep The American Heritage dictionary beside me at all times."
"And you’re studying Latin now and learning the roots of words," I keep going.
"Well, of course, that fascinates me," he agreed. "I would also like to study Greek" he said, "because it’s the true root language," which I didn’t know.
"So it’s clear that words are essential to you," I finish, while he pours himself a glass of wine.
For all of his accomplishments, Gene Lees is unimpressed about what he can do and what he has done. He doesn’t think whatever he does is particularly remarkable. No one buys it, of course. Thornton Wilder addressed unassumingness in brilliance in his novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. In describing his character, the Marquesa de Montemayor, who wrote masses of letters to an estranged daughter, Wilder wrote, "The Marquesa would have been astonished to learn that her letters were very good, for such authors live always in the noble weather of their own minds and those productions which seem remarkable to us are little better than a day’s routine to them."
In other words, great people don’t know they’re great because being great is natural to them. That’s Gene. Great, and doesn’t know it.
Early years in Canada
Eugene Frederick John Lees was born in Hamilton, Ontario on February 8, 1928. Gene was born under the sign of Aquarius which reminds me of the song Age of Aquarius from the 1968 musical Hair, a play that both Gene and Johnny Mercer absolutely hated. Gene thought it was "musically cretinous." They’d gone to see it together and after a few bars of the opening song, Aquarius, Mercer turned to Gene and said, "let’s go" and they left.
Gene, his three siblings and all his cousins are first generation Canadians; his parents and grandparents were born in England. His paternal grandfather, Jack Lees, was a coal miner born in Taunton-under-lynne, Lancashire. He married Elizabeth Haslam, also from Lancashire.
Gene’s grandparents and their four children emigrated to Canada in 1919 because of the collapse of the coal industry in Britain; one of the children was Gene’s father, Harold.
Harold Lees, no middle name, was born in 1901 and "went to work at age thirteen in a cotton mill in Lancashire. He went into a coal mine when he was fourteen or fifteen. He was a talented painter (like Gene), studied music (like Gene), and played the violin. He practiced his fingering on his shovel when he was working in the mines." Gene has never been in a coal mine in his life but he has "a brain full of images of what it was like" from talking with his father.
Gene’s maternal grandfather was Fred Flatman, a gifted ironworker, who was born in London and married there. His wife was Lillian Gillard, originally from Bristol. They emigrated to Canada around 1905 or thereabouts. Gene’s mother, Dorothy Flatman, was born in England, as were all her siblings. Gene has a notion the Flatmans’ emigration had something to do with Fred’s radical politics. "It was my grandfather’s politics that got him into trouble. He was very left wing."
The Flatmans settled in Hamilton, Ontario. When I asked Gene if Hamilton was beautiful he replied, "no, not particularly. It is a cotton mill and steel town. An industrial town that sits on Lake Ontario." Toronto, Hamilton, Buffalo and Rochester are located within a hundred-mile radius.
Fred Flatman was one of the great decorative iron workers and made the georgous wrought iron gates that hang at the Oakes Garden Theatre in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and the gates in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton. He was active politically and was one of the organizers the Westinghouse strike of WWI. He was a member of the Independent Labour Party which grew in power during the war years.
Fred Flatman was a great orator (like Gene.) He founded a newspaper (like Gene.) He adored Gene and Gene adored him. Some of the cousins hated Mr. Flatman because he had a violent temper (as Gene has sometimes.) Gene can’t ever remember his grandfather having a meal without a book. He was partially deaf and used to turn off his hearing aide (like Gene tunes out whenever he feels like it.) He remembers his grandfather once put a bowl of eggs on Gene’s high chair and allowed the baby to throw them all on the floor.
During the 1920s, Harold Lees played violin in a theatre pit band. "In those days many of the theatres had full orchestras. The idea that silent films were only accompanied by piano is incorrect. In fact the picture arrived with orchestra parts. Hugo Friedhofer taught me this."
Hugo Friedhofer, born in 1901, was a renowned film composer with more than two hundred and fifty film scores to his credit (The Best Years of Our Lives, The Bishop’s Wife, The Sun Also Rises, etc.) He and Gene became friends in 1959 when Gene was the editor of Down Beat. Two of Gene’s favorite Friedhofer scores are Boy on a Dolphin, the 1957 film that made Sophia Loren an international movie star, and One-Eyed Jacks, the 1961 film starring and directed by Marlon Brando.
One-Eyed Jacks is a Western that, to Gene, is still frustratingly underrated, an opinion shared by Francis Ford Coppola. Mr. Friedhofer once told Gene, "I have known two men of genius in this town--Orson Welles and Marlon Brando--and Hollywood, not knowing what to do with genius, destroys it."
Harold Lees, violinist, met Harry Flatman, trombonist, in one of the orchestras for silent films and introduced Gene’s parents. Harold Lees and Dorothy Flatman met and married in 1927 and rented a house in Hamilton. Gene was born at home but it was a breach birth and he was badly damaged. They tried to crush his skull in order to deliver him and when they’d done that they threw him on the bed convinced that he wouldn’t live. His grandmother, Lillian Flatman, insisted, "he will live." She would daily massage Gene’s head with olive oil and squeeze it like sculpture until it got back into normal shape. Lillian was Gene’s guardian angel. She literally saved his life at birth and was one of the lights of his childhood. He remembers "she always had a full refrigerator and all kinds of canned food in the basement. Her house was replete with food" which was a relief compared to the continuous lack in the Lees household.
Gene is the eldest of four: Patricia, four years younger, passed away in 1990. When she was in her forties, Patricia Lees finished and graduated from high school, then took some college courses. She become a writer and did some editing and reporting for one of the local newspapers in Fergus, Ontario.
Dr. Victoria Lees, sixteen years younger than Gene, is the former Secretary General of Montréal’s McGill University. Dr. Lees is an expert in medieval English literature and is often her brother’s research assistant.
The youngest child by eighteen years, David Lees, is an award-winning science writer in Canada. All three siblings became writers under Gene’s influence. Gene smiles when he thinks of them; "the family is witty," he admits.
Gene recalls that "we were all treated very badly [as children] regarding never having enough money for books and schooling. I had to work in the paper mills during the summer and bring my pay home to the family, which I resented, because I still didn’t have enough to get by on. And there was no need for stinting. There was actually enough to go round, but it never did. My parents were not good to us; yes, we had vitamins and the bare necessities, but as far as any emotional nurturing, forget it. My mother gave none of us any confidence and I have never fully recovered from that. Everything I have ever done has been against a wind of self-doubt blowing in my face."
His first baby utterance was the complete sentence, "leave me alone" and he has not swerved from that desire in seventy-eight years. Regardless of the fact that he is a marvelous story teller and capable of generating hilarity in any social gathering (if he feels like it,) "leave me alone" is his core desire because he is always creating something in his giant mind - a book, a song, an article - and that constant creative activity requires solitude. He needs to be alone to "hear himself think."
I often see Gene sitting peacefully in his chair at his dining table which is his favorite perch. He gazes sometimes for hours, through a wall of windows onto a view he fashioned with his own hands; the fence on the right side of the swimming pool, the bougainvillea around it which are now thirty feet tall and hang in graceful arches of purple, pink and white, the palm tree at the foot of the pool and the lavender bushes beside it, and Janet put in a dozen pink and white rose bushes on the left side to complete the rectangle. Gene will sit serenely in his chair, thinking, reading and socializing, but mostly gazing wordlessly into the beyond forming phrases in his mind that are eventually typed into his computer.
Although Gene was blessed with a giant intellect it separated him from the other children; he told me "being brilliant was humiliating." For all his intelligence he "was a lousy student. Terrible. My parents were so disturbed by my poor showing in school they took me to a psychiatrist when I was twelve. I was given an IQ test and the doctor said, ‘the trouble with this boy is he’s bored.’
"Radio was a huge influence on me. Stamford, Ontario was only five miles from the American border and I’d listen to WBEN, Buffalo, WKBW, WHAM in Rochester, all the American network on radio. Most of what you listened to was live. I remember Jack Benny, Fred Allen, and especially Duffy’s Tavern which was written by Larry Gelbart. Duffy’s was based on McSorley’s Saloon. Forty years later, when I met Larry Gelbart, I blew his mind by reciting whole segments of that show for him. He couldn’t believe I used to listen to it and actually remembered it.
"The Metropolitan Opera broadcast every Saturday afternoon. My grandmother would never miss that. The Service Gasoline Company and Firestone Tires subsidized orchestras. Artie Shaw was on staff for CBS. The Bell Telephone Hour had Donald Voorhes conducting their orchestra. All the live comedy shows always had an orchestra. Fibber McGee and Molly had an orchestra on the show. The Billy Mills orchestra would play theme music and spots in between. I could pick out the guitarist. I was particularly struck by the rhythm section which turned out to be Perry Botkin."
"Johnny Mercer’s Music Shop had to perform twice; once for the East coast and once for the West. Jo Stafford told me that after the first show they’d all go out to dinner and have a few drinks so by the time they did the second show they were a whole lot looser.
"I went to the movies as much as I could. You could get into the movies for a nickel. I went every week, regularly. The Royal Theatre in Hamilton.
"I wanted to be a painter when I grew up. I was naturally good at it and it is what I really focused on. I won a scholarship to the Ontario College of Art. I dropped out of High School at seventeen to go."
When Gene went to The Ontario College of Art in September, 1945, "it was full of returning service men. One guy, a navy man, was a brilliant painter. He taught me what under painting was and he taught me about Rembrandt. And I remember there was an old beat up piano in the school and he would play Bach. It was the first time I ever heard Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring. When I listened to Teddy Wilson’s piano, I knew he’d played a lot of Bach."
"When you’re discussing music, Harrigan, there are two people you don’t ever mention because they are Divine. They are not even human: Bach and Mozart. There’s them, and then there’s everybody else.
"They were playing Andy Russell’s Besame Mucho a lot on the radio. He was a great singer on Capitol Records. Some of those people who were far away distant stars of mine eventually became friends in later years. Especially Peggy Lee. I adored Peg."
Gene told me one of the remarkable things about Peggy Lee was how still she stood on the stage. "She was completely motionless. Maybe she’d give a flick of the eye brow or the slight gesture with a finger. The point was that you heard the song. She got out of the way of the song. She let the song happen. I once asked her ‘where do you get the courage to do nothing? And she replied, ‘there is power in stillness.’"
Becoming a writer
"I was in Art School for only a year and a half. What happened is I found myself skipping classes and haunting the Public Library. I read Fitzgerald (I don’t think he wrote a memorable phrase in his life.) I also read Robert E. Sherwood, Eugene O'Neill, the complete works, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream, a novel I love and John Dos Pasos, another huge influence. The best novelist I’ve ever read is John Steinbeck. Steinbeck is the guy who taught me how to show. Don’t tell, show. Show the external behavior of people and let the reader figure out what it means. I also read Morley Callahan who wrote Now That April’s Here which was a collection of short stories I was enraptured by. He is the best short story writer of our time." Mr. Callahan is also an angel in the life story of Gene Lees.
"I happened to be reading one of his stories that referenced ‘Younge Street’ which is in Toronto. It also referenced ‘Windsor’ making it the city of Ontario, across the river from Detroit. I didn’t think Canadians could achieve anything, that we were inferior to England and the United States. What I did not know was that key Canadians practically created the U.S. movie industry: Max Sennett, Mary Pickford, the Warner brothers from Ontario, and Louis B. Mayer, who always considered himself a Canadian even though he was born in Russia...
"Anyway, I was absolutely enthralled by Callahan’s short stories. I did some research on Morley Callahan and found out he was Canadian which absolutely blew my mind. It occurred to me that if he were Canadian then he might live in Toronto. I picked up a phone book and saw ‘Callahan, Morley, Walmer road.’ I was sharing a room with Harry Harley, who later became a prominent cartoonist, and I got to talking to Harry about this. Harry suggested, ‘why don’t you go and meet him.’ I said, ‘oh, I couldn’t do that.’ But one day, with Harry in tow, I walked up to the door and knocked on it and a man answered the door. I asked ‘sir, are you Morley Callahan?’ ‘Yes, I am,’ he replied. ‘Sir, I think I want to be a writer.’ ‘Well, I’d invite you in but my son has the mumps. There’s a restaurant called the Varsity, and if you go down there and wait for me, I’ll join you in twenty minutes’
"He talked with us for three or four hours. The one thing I remember he told me is, ‘the only thing you can do about writing is to keep doing it until you get it right.’
"The worst advice given to writers is ‘write about what you know about.’ That’s bull----. Learn what you want to write about.
"That meeting with Morley was the turning point in my life. The fact that this man of towering stature took the time to talk to me, changed my life.
"The year was 1947. I went home at Christmas and my mother actually had insight into me. She said, ‘you don’t want to go back to school, do you?’ I said no, so she said ‘then don’t.’"
"My mother was stupefyingly well read (like Gene). She could quote Wordsworth by the yard, also Walt Whitman and Robert Frost."
Inspired by Callahan, Gene wrote his first novel. "The authority on William Blake is Northrop Frye. He’d published the book Fearful Symmetry (1947)which was an analysis of all of Blake’s writing. My friend, Bill Mather was studying with Frye and I’d written a novel I would sell my soul to get a copy of, incidentally. Bill encouraged me to show it to Frye. I went up to Frye’s office. I was tremulous at meeting the great man. I sat down and I gave him the manuscript and he said, ‘yes, I’ll read it.’
"And he did and he taught me another great lesson. ‘Some of this is very good,’ he said. ‘Some of it is ordinary. If it were entirely ordinary, you could sell it. But unfortunately, what is good shows up what is ordinary.’
"From that moment I never let up on my writing. From 1948 I’ve tried to keep it all at a high level. Don’t ever get lazy.
"My mother knew Lady Hendrie of the Hendrie truck company because my grandfather had built the gates in front of their mansion. She called Mr. Hendrie who arranged for me to have an interview at the Hamilton Spectator with the city editor, Frank Keene. There is no law that says the city editor has to be Irish, but it helps.
"I went down there wanting to be a copy boy. He interviewed me for a while. He said, ‘OK, come in Monday at 9 o’clock.’ So I went in and discovered I was assigned to be a reporter. My assignment was sitting on my desk: it was a photograph with information attached as to where it came from, with the caption 2 col. cutlines. I had no idea what that meant. I was sitting next to a guy out of the Air Force named Ray Blair. I said ‘Ray, what does this mean?’ He said ‘Caption for this picture. You write in capital letters two or three words marked bold face about the subject.’ That was the only lesson in journalism I ever had. I was a reporter from then on.
"Somewhere in my early newspaper days I trained myself not to arrive at a conclusion because I wanted to but to arrive at a conclusion I disliked. If I let it get too emotional, I lose control of the material. It’s the same with writing lyrics. Your way into a lyric is not to let any emotion into it.
"There are two major serious errors a writer can make: to assume ignorance on the part of the reader and to assume knowledge on the part of the reader. The trick is to teach the reader without letting them, him, or her, know it. When I was a young reporter and I would be sent to cover a story I didn’t understand, I had no problem telling people, ‘I don’t understand anything.’ The person who doesn’t know often does better work than someone who does. The person who does know takes knowledge for granted. The one who doesn’t has to research it.
"In 1955 I was at the Montréal Star. The editor was George V. Ferguson, who had once been a Canadian delegate to the United Nations. He was a very distinguished and fine man. I went in to see him and told him I wanted to leave Montreal.
"In those years, artistically, Canada was very restricting. For instance, you couldn’t make a big orchestral recording in Canada like Farnon did in England. The publishing industry was very small. There was no movie industry. The theatre, back then, came in from England or the States. I wanted greener pastures. Nowadays it’s different: Norman Jewison still lives in Canada and Donald Sutherland does. But Canadian artists generally come to America. (Mary Pickford, Colleen Dewhurst, Raymond Burr, William Shatner, Peter Jennings, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Dan Aykroyd, Michael J. Fox, Céline Dion, Jim Carrey, Mike Meyers, Shania Twain, etc.)
"Ferguson said, ‘where do you want to go?’ I said, ‘England or the States.’ He advised ‘go to the states. They pay better.’ I asked him if he would write me a letter of recommendation and he did better than that. He wrote applications to all kinds of American newspapers and I got five offers. Two were from the Washington Post and the Louisville Times. I took Louisville because they wanted a music editor and I knew music.
"I’d never been south of New York City. I was shocked by the fact of segregation and on the other hand I was astonished by the warmth and kindness and generosity of Americans. One of the first stories I was sent on was to do color stories at the Kentucky Derby. I was very good at reporting atmospheric stories. So I’m sitting in the press box next to a gentlemen who looks kind of familiar. After a little while I said, ‘how do you do sir, my name’s Gene Lees.’ He said, ‘how do you do, my name’s Bill Faulkner.’" It was an auspicious start to life in the United States.
Gene originally went to Louisville to be the music editor. "I was part-time music and part-time general assignment. Then it became full-time drama, and then I was handed the entire arts section of the paper. I covered ballet, the symphony, opera (which I don’t particularly care for but I had to be fair about it.) I like Puccini, Bizet and Mozart; all the connoisseurs will cut my head off but I don’t like Verdi and I don’t like Wagner."
Gene once sent me into paroxysms of laughter when he quoted Mark Twin’s quip, "Wagner’s music isn’t as bad as it sounds." And "you know," Gene said at the time, "it isn’t as bad as it sounds" making me laugh even harder.
"All the people I was covering, major pianists, conductors, movie actresses, Alan Ladd, James Stewart, Larry Parks, I met a lot of them. I was able to discuss movies with them. Not reading it out of a book but discussing it with them. One of the first things I asked Josh about was the scene where Brando discovers the bodies in Sayonara. And how the music scene in Picnic was done. I’d ask him all kinds of things like that. How did that happen, and this. You can’t get it from books.
"I met Nat King Cole for the first and only time in Louisville. I spent the whole day with him. We met in his hotel room and had lunch. He was very gracious. Always was--to everybody--famous for it. It was only later that I realized we’d never have been allowed in the hotel restaurant and he knew it and wasn’t going to make an issue of it."
Gene said to me, "you probably only think of Nat Cole as a singer, Harrigan, but he was also a great jazz pianist. He influenced every piano player who came after him--Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Roger Kellaway. He had an exquisite touch and fabulously good time. I’ve said this many times: if I could be reincarnated I would come back as Nat Cole, the pianist."
Eventually I left the Louisville Times because I got into a row with the managing editor.
"I had lunch with a friend who was a press agent from Disney. He told me Down Beat had two openings: editor and New York editor which was was Nat Hentoff’s job and he was leaving. I wanted Nat’s job and to move to New York. The PR man picked up the phone and called Down Beat and then handed the phone to me. ‘Can you come up here this weekend and see us?’ they asked. I flew up to Chicago on a Saturday and a week later I was the editor for Down Beat. I knew a lot about jazz."
jazz & Jobim
"I’d studied music as a kid. Various instruments. I hated practicing, however, and so do a lot of musicians. Roger Kellaway hates practicing. Bill Evans hated practicing. I’ve know few major jazz pianists who like to practice except Oscar Peterson. He actually likes practicing."
"I grew up surrounded by Beethoven and by jazz. I was drenched in drums and a little later, Stravinsky. I started listening to jazz on the radio, although at the time, we didn’t know it was jazz."
At the risk of causing a collective sigh heard round the world, I asked Gene what exactly is jazz?
"Jazz is a particular form of music that originated in the United States which puts down a steady and specific pulse over which the rest of the music occurs. The rest of the music is syncopated. It’s off the center of the beat, unlike classical music. Duke Ellington’s song, It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing is literally true. To me, the beat is essential in jazz. Over that and on top of all of that, it has the wonderful dimension of improvised solos. The thrill is the unpredictability of it. I know people who compare jazz to football, meaning that it’s athletic."
"What is written down?" I ask.
"Sometimes nothing at all. It’s like this. Let’s say five guys get together on a bandstand who’ve never met. One of ‘em says, how about I’ve Got You Under My Skin in D flat? They all know the tunes, they all know the keys. Every jazz musician knows hundreds of tunes and the harmony. It is a myth that they can’t read music. I’ve only known two jazz musicians personally who couldn’t read music: Errol Garner (Misty) and Wes Montgomery. And Bix Beiderbecke, who died when I was three, was a very poor reader. It didn’t hurt them one bit. It’s a myth, coming out of classical music, that the music is all about reading. That’s not true. Music is about sound. Unless somebody’s playing it or listening to it, Beethoven’s Fifth doesn’t exist. The written symphony is only a diagram.
"In May, ‘59 I moved to Chicago, which is my favorite city in the United States. The architecture, the vitality. Carl Sandburg called it the ‘City of Big Shoulders’ because it’s strong. A functioning city. Beautiful neighborhoods, parks, museums. A working town. Not some phony Hollywood town full of movie executives who are all vapid and killers. Down Beat was in the loop and the clubs were in the deep South side, in the Negro neighborhood. What we would now call the ‘black’ neighborhoods."
Gene explained that "the correct word in 1960 was ‘Negro.’ I object to the term ‘African American’ because it excludes Oscar Peterson, Ray Downs and other musicians from other countries."
"When I was in Chicago I lived mostly in the black neighborhoods, as did Dizzy, Oscar, Benny Golson and Art Farmer. Chicago had a substantial jazz movement of its own. I knew them all personally as friends: Johnny Pate, Lurlean Hunger (singer), Eddie Harris, Johnny Griffin. They later became famous but there was a whole Chicago cadre of fine musicians. I’d go to sit at the bar and just listen. Sometimes I’d write reviews and do interviews. I’d listen and hang out. That’s where my books come from. And the Jazzletter. All in the space of three years. Within six months I knew them all--Buddy Rich, Jerry Mulligan--and in three years I knew them all well. My whole life flows out of Chicago. There are still a lot of musicians in Chicago who think of me as a Chicago boy. It was a formative period of my life. Chicago and Paris."
"I left Down Beat because they wanted to fire our Art Director, Bob Billings, and I wouldn’t do it. I wrote my resignation in the form of a song called It’s National F___ Your Buddy Week.
"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.
"The bossa nova was an aberration. The fact that it was a hit in the 1960s is proof that in the middle of all that crap that if they were exposed to it, people would embrace what is good."
"When I got back to the States from South America I lived in New York. It was a rough, grim and desperate time of my life.
"I had no money and no one would hire me. I was living at the YMCA. It was a time of humiliation and being broke. But I got an agent and he sold my novel, And Sleep Until Noon, [about an expatriate singer from the States in Paris, begun when Gene was in France in 1958], which I hate, by the way. Then the first recordings of my songs started to happen. I got a substantial advance from BMI. My song with Bill Evans, Waltz For Debby, became a hit, and my songs with Jobim were being widely recorded (Song of the Jet, Dreamer.) Another adaptation of a Jobim song, Someone to Light Up My Life, became a standard."
In the winter of 1968, just before Christmas, Gene met his wife, Janet. Gene was living on West 86th Street between Central Park West and Columbus. Janet was staying in a friend’s apartment on Central Park South. She had written a musical play, Morning After Carnival, which involved Brazilian music and she needed a lyricist in the first act. A friend of Janet’s who’d read the play, raved about it to a vice president at BMI. The vice president said, "there is only one lyricist I would recommend: Gene Lees."
Gene called Janet after he’d been contacted by BMI. Janet was going out that night and told her date they just had to drop off her script to "this writer," and then they’d go on to dinner. When they arrived at Gene’s apartment building on West 86th street, they happened to all meet in the lobby. Gene told me that when he first laid eyes on Janet he "nearly fainted because she was so beautiful. I remember seeing her in the doorway of my building and she was so georgous I actually became weak in the knees. I was afraid I was going to pass out."
Janet is descended from the Hazelius family of Sweden, who built the Nordic Museum and the first open-air museum, Skansen, in Stockholm. Her mother was a member of the Ballets Russe de Monte Carlo. In the 1920s she went to Hollywood to visit her Aunt Rose Hazelius and soon worked as a dancer in a number of movies. Janet’s father, Lawrence Donald Suttle, was an engineer who helped design the B-29 bomber. After WWII he worked for Ford and Chrysler and then formed his own company where he designed and developed the first turbo steam engine.
Janet majored in theatre at Wayne State University and she and her friends would often go out to hear jazz. Janet remembers that "jazz fans were highly educated, intelligent people" and her crowd was always well dressed as were the musicians, "who wore jackets and looked very Ivy League, very Brooks Brothers, which was the look in the late 1940s and ‘50s. Everything was pretty much segregated at that time except there were what they called, the ‘black and tan clubs’ where all colors could mix." They heard Lockjaw Davis, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Elvin Jones and many others. Charlie Parker used to call her "Miss 101" because she often had her text books with her.
One evening as Janet was leaving a club after the first set was done, she heard a voice, "which could only have belonged to Miles Davis because he had a very distinct voice. ‘Where you going all by yourself?’ he asked.’"
"I’m going to my car. I’ve got an exam tomorrow," Janet replied.
"I’ll walk you to your car." Mr. Davis said and he accompanied her. When she was safely sitting in the driver’s seat, he told her, "I will watch you ‘til you turn onto the freeway and then I’ll know you’re OK."
Gene and Janet Lees have been married since 1971.
As far as Gene is concerned, the definitive version of Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars was recorded by Frank Sinatra: Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim, Reprise Records, 1967, Arranged and conducted by Claus Ogerman. Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars is cut #4.
Gene loves and admires many singers who have influenced his own singing but "when it comes to American popular song in the English speaking language the ones who can deliver a song like none other are Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra.
"He was the best," Gene said. "No one came close to his artistry. The other day Placido Domingo was asked who he felt the greatest artist was in any medium and Domingo replied, ‘Frank Sinatra.’
"Technically," Gene began, "he was superb. His sound; he had a great natural instrument which he constantly trained by swimming underwater to expand his lungs. His voice production; the way he made the sound with his diaphragm, ribcage, and throat. He had a range of two octaves and he was terribly in tune with the musical surroundings and the instruments."
"All our music is played on the tempered scale which is an adjusted scale that is naturally out of tune. But if you get rid of the piano and you have only strings they don’t play the tempered scale, they play the untempered scale. Sinatra sang in relationship to the chord and the sound of the orchestra and whichever scale they were in. The problem in even discussing this technically makes him sound like a cold singer but he wasn’t. There was a dramatic inwardness like some of the very best actors; Clift, Brando, James Dean. He was a Stanislavskian singer. So was Peggy Lee. They sang like truly great acting. Sinatra was an actor of the song. An actor cannot control the muscles of his face by conscious effort. If you want sadness to register you have to feel it and then it will show on your face. Sinatra felt the music like none other. Nobody could surpass it, nobody could get into the emotion of it like Sinatra.
"He found an emotion in my lyric This Happy Madness I didn’t even know was there. He sings it at first like a self-mocking adult ‘I feel that I’ve gone back to childhood and I’m skipping through the wildwood so excited—’ but then he goes into this curious puzzlement, this vulnerable whisper ‘I don’t know what to do.’ It’s breathtaking. Sinatra does difficult songs and tosses them off like there’s nothing to it.
"Miles Davis said ‘it takes a long time to sound like yourself.’ When Frank was with Harry James (c 1939) his version of All or Nothing At All (Cole Porter) sounds mechanical and a little piss-elegant like he’s trying to be British. But as he progresses, when he’s with Tommy Dorsey he’s finding himself; The Song Is You (Jerome Kern) and The Lamplighters Serenade (Hoagy Carmichael, Paul Francis Webster), by then he is sounding like himself but not as much as he is going to sound. His voice really sounds like him on the Columbia recordings after he left Dorsey. There he is inimitable. (1943-1952.) Once he got the mechanics, then he forgot about it. Sinatra had so internalized his lessons. He has no peer."
"I love a lot of singers, actually. But Sinatra is like Shakespeare; there’s him and then there’s everybody else.
"The night before I was going to sit in on the session for Quiet Nights I got a call from Claus Ogerman to come to his hotel room and teach him Change Partners, which I knew by heart (Irving Berlin,1938). Neither Claus nor Jobim knew it and Frank wanted to record it. Claus was staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel in a room that had a piano. I sang that song all night long so he could write the arrangement around me because I sing in the same key as Frank. When we went into the studio the next day they recorded it. It was common then to record three songs a day which is why it only took three days to record the whole album. Nowadays," Gene couldn’t resist adding, "rock ‘n’ roll bands can’t get a decent sound in five hours, much less record three songs."
I had the privilege to know Mr. Sinatra from the time I was a child. He was a friend of my parents and would often come to dinner. I knew him to be a gracious, funny, thoughtful, charming and generous man. He was sweet enough to always say hello to me which, as the child, was very special. When I became a young woman he’d say, "please call me Frank," but I could never do that. Aside from the fact that he was so much older, he was a little bit dazzling even if he was just being himself and I couldn’t bring myself to call that radiant being "Frank," or even "Francis" which is how he sometimes signed his notes.
I remember an important conversation I had with him that bears on the recording session for Quiet Nights. Mr. Sinatra told me that when he was "a kid" he listened to Arturo Toscanini on the radio and dreamed of being a great conductor. He also loved classical music and dreamed of being a great composer. "But," he said, "I knew I’d never be able to write as well as the great composers and I just couldn’t settle for writing anything that wasn’t great. And I didn’t want to split my concentration and just become mediocre in all three areas. I wanted to be great and I knew I could sing, so I decided to concentrate on that." Later he said, "what I love most about singing is the lyrics. That is the most important part of the song to me."
When he was sitting in the sound booth in the recording studio in 1967, Gene could tell the minute Mr. Sinatra walked in. Gene said "I could feel him enter the room."
Mr. Sinatra always had an acute awareness of everything going on around him; who was there and where they were sitting, and he knew Gene was in the control booth because they’d chatted during the course of the session. By knowing the lyricist was in the studio, Mr. Sinatra would have wanted to deliver the song as at no other time and his recording of Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars has a specialness I can feel in my bones; I believe the reason is because Gene was there.
Gene said, "I’d quit smoking at that time but I got so excited about the way he was recording it, I started smoking again." Mr. Sinatra was smoking during the session and you can hear the smoke in his voice. It cracks a little bit on "by quiet streams" and on a "my love."
Mr. Sinatra recorded four songs Gene wrote with Jobim and for Gene, they are definitive; the other three are Someone to Light Up My Life, Desafinado, and This Happy Madness.
Excellence to earnings
Why write about Gene Lees? Why even bother to think about him? Because Gene is the embodiment of greatness and we find ourselves, temporarily, because the pendulum always swings, in an artistically mediocre time. I asked Gene where was the turning point? What happened that we lowered our standards in music, books, theatre, ballet, radio, television, opera and on. Gene said "it happened in the music business in the 1960s. Money became the goal. Record companies switched from excellence to earnings."
When Columbia Records was headed by Goddard Lieberson in the early 1960s, it was a company that offered recordings in all areas of music: popular, country, classical, jazz, theatre and opera. Gene told me "the violinist Joseph Szigeti, said to Tony Bennett, ‘I can record for Columbia records because you record for Columbia.’ Meaning Tony was bringing in enough of a profit for the company that they could also record an artist that didn’t sell as much but was important artistically and essential for the culture. They used to review movies on their merit but now they tell you what the box office returns are instead: we slid from excellence to earnings."
This is the reason to reflect on Gene’s life. He is a standard-bearer; one who exemplifies what is worthwhile, necessary and great about the arts. When it comes to passionately caring about a high level of artistic excellence there’s Gene Lees, and then there’s everybody else.
When we lose our way, as individual artists or as a civilization, we need to be reminded that there exists a high standard, a North Star of art from which to navigate. It is a comfort to know that in a future dark age, the writings and songs of Gene Lees will ever be twinkling from stores and libraries; we can read passages from his books and become inspired to excel, or listen to Mr. Sinatra sing Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars and be restored to the high road again.
I hear Gene’s mantra in my mind, loud and clear; "Keep it all at a high level." This is his gift to the world.
©2006 Harrigan Logan, all rights reserved
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