Gene Lees, 1928-2010

In 1998 when I learned about W. Eugene Smith’s tapes at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, I spent a few days picking through all 1740 reels.  I noted 138 names of musicians chicken-scratched by Smith on the labels.  CCP had the right policy that we couldn’t play the tapes until they were properly preserved, which didn’t happen until we were fortunate with some large grants in 2002.  So all I had in the beginning were the 138 names (and Smith’s photographs).  I was a subscriber to the JazzLetter, a self-published periodical by the great jazz chronicler, Gene Lees, and I was on his email list, too.  One day Gene accidentally sent an email to his entire list exposing every email address on the list (it was the early days of email).  I peaked at his list and saw the names of Bill Crow and Dave Frishberg, who were also on my list of 138.  I emailed Gene and asked him if I could email Bill and Dave, not being sure if it were appropriate since Gene hadn’t intended to expose those addresses.  Gene, who had no reason to know me at all, replied, “If my accident helps your research, then by all means, do it.”  He also gave me Art Farmer’s mailing address in Vienna and I was able to correspond with Art before he died a year later.

I never met Gene Lees and I bet he forgot about his early influence my research.  I reminded and thanked him a time or two later.  I always thought I’d meet him in person one day soon but it never happened.  I regret it bitterly.  His long JazzLetter piece on Bill Evans (“Re: Person I Knew”) made a big impact on me when I was just starting to learn about jazz, plus another piece on Dizzy Gillespie, “Waiting for Dizzy.”  I recommend this obituary by the similarly outstanding chronicler Doug Ramsey.  Make sure to read all the responses to Doug’s post, too.

HERE is the New York Times obituary.

-Sam Stephenson

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