24 April 2010

Gene Lees, Johnny Mercer's biographer

Gene Lees, author of the definitive biography of Johnny Mercer, has died.

Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times:
"Gene Lees, a jazz historian and critic known for his pugnacious, highly personal essays and biographies of such jazz greats as Oscar Peterson, Woody Herman and Johnny Mercer, died Thursday [22 April 2010] at his home in Ojai."

Matt Schudel, Washington Post:
"Much of Mr. Lees's writing grew out of his friendships with leading musical figures, including trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, singer Peggy Lee and songwriter Johnny Mercer."

"He wrote biographies of bandleader Woody Herman, Mercer and the composing team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe and was the co-author of Henry Mancini's autobiography."

"As for songwriting," he said, "the best training I know is to sing -- and study the works of the great writers such as Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter, and Harold Arlen, who gave us an astonishing body of masterpieces before rock-and-roll brought our musical culture crashing down."

Peter Keepnews, New York Times:
"In addition to seven collections of Jazzletter essays, Mr. Lees's books include biographies of Woody Herman, Oscar Peterson, Johnny Mercer and the songwriting team Lerner and Loewe."

A Kind of Poet
Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal:
"Most of the essays that went into his books were originally published there [in his Jazzletter], and many of the best of them are matchlessly vivid profiles of the artists whom he knew, including such giants of jazz and prerock pop as Jobim, Sinatra, Paul Desmond, Bill Evans, Dizzy Gillespie, Peggy Lee and Johnny Mercer. Such volumes as "Meet Me at Jim and Andy's," "Singers and the Song," "Waiting for Dizzy" and his biographies of Mercer and Woody Herman are now part of the permanent literature of American popular music."

"He idolized Mercer, whom he thought to be "the finest lyricist in the English language," and when I heard the news of his death I thought of a line from one of Mercer's best songs, "One for My Baby": "You'd never know it, / But buddy, I'm a kind of poet, / And I've gotta lotta things to say." Even when he was writing prose, Gene Lees was a kind of poet, and what he had to say will be worth hearing a hundred years from now."

London Times:
"This [writings on Gillespie, Benny Carter, Shaw, Peterson] was followed (in parallel with further collections of shorter pieces) by lives of Woody Herman, Lerner and Loewe, and Johnny Mercer."

Michael Posner of the Toronto Globe and Mail did not mention Johnny Mercer in his obit for Gene Lees.

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