Saturday, February 06, 2016

`The Greatest Contribution to World Culture'

Gene Lees, Eugene Frederick John Lees (1928-2010), was born in Hamilton, Ont., the son of British expatriates. He grew up in the small city of St. Catherines in the Niagara peninsula, just ten miles from the American border. Lees dropped out of the Ontario College of Art, worked as a newspaper reporter in Canada, and moved to Kentucky in 1955 to become music editor of The Louisville Times. He edited Down Beat magazine from 1959 to 1961, and went on to write fifteen books, the best of which are drawn from his profiles and essays in Jazzletter, the magazine Lees founded in 1981 and published out of his house in Ojai, Calif. In “The Prez of Louisville” (Cats of Any Color: Jazz Black and White, 1994), Lees writes of his boyhood in Ontario:

“But then I thought all black people were gods. This was because most of my idols were black, men named Benny carter, Nat Cole, Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Joe Thomas, Ray Nance, County Basie, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Teddy Wilson, Arnett Cobb. Dozens of them. One young friend of mine, who played trumpet and shared my awe of them, said that whenever he saw a Negro (the requisite polite term in those days), he wanted to get his autograph, even if the man was a railway porter.”

Not only were his heroes black; they were American. Lees goes on:

“Small wonder that so many of us had an identity problem, one symptom of which was that we approached whatever Canadian art or entertainment there was with a conditioned condescension, imposing our own doubts upon it. That problem left me permanently sympathetic to the black-identity problem in the United States.”

In “Sudden Immersion” (You Can’t Steal a Gift: Dizzy, Clark, Milt, and Nat, 2001), Lees continues his exploration of national identity. He was always contentious and increasingly cranky as he aged, happy to criticize, and celebrate, both of his countries:

“Unlike immigrants from the world’s sundry tyrannies, I was not fleeing [in 1955] some hideous dictatorship. Canada was in some ways a more democratic and much freer country than the United States. This was, after all, only five months after Joseph McCarthy had been condemned by the Senate for what, in effect, was a reign of political terror.”

Lees condemns what he calls “a sense of inferiority toward European culture” still felt by many Americans,” especially in music: “To this day, all too many `cultured’ Americans do not  appreciate the genius of Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, and others at the upper level of popular music , which very term they transcended. And in general Americans do not have anything approaching an adequate appreciation of the greatest contribution to world culture the United States has made: jazz.”    

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