Gene Lees, Jazz Critic and Great Supporter of Robert
Farnon, has died aged 82
Eugene Frederick John Lees, born on 8 February 1928,
in Hamilton, Ontario, the eldest of four children of an
expatriate British couple, Harold Lees and the former Dorothy
Flatman. He died at his home in Ojai, California on 22 April
2010, After dropping out of the Ontario College of Art,
he worked as a newspaper reporter in Canada before moving
to Kentucky to become music editor of The Louisville Times
in 1955. He was the editor of Downbeat magazine from 1959
to 1961 and went on to write about music for The New York
Times and other publications.
Gene Lees was a prolific jazz critic and historian who
approached his subject with a journalists rigour and
an insiders understanding. The author of numerous
books, Gene was not just an observer of the music scene,
he was also a participant. The Robert Farnon Society was
proud to count him as a valued member for almost fifty years,
and he regularly kept in touch with news of his latest assignments.
He was also an accomplished lyricist whose credits included
Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars, the English-language
lyric for Antonio Carlos Jobims Corcovado,
which was recorded by Frank Sinatra, Astrud Gilberto and
many others. He was also a vocalist, with several albums
to his credit.
That experience, and the friendships he built over the
years with musicians, singers and songwriters, informed
the project that had been his primary focus since 1981:
publishing (monthly at first, later at irregular intervals)
the subscription-only Gene Lees Jazzletter, mostly as an
outlet for his own biographical and historical essays.
"The beauty of this thing," Gene said of his
journal in an interview in The New York Times in 1987, "is
that it has permitted me to write what I want to write,
not what editors want me to write. And the beauty of it
for the other contributors is that theyve got total
freedom. No money, but total freedom."
The Jazzletter, published out of his own home, carried
no advertising, and its circulation was small, although
it included readers whose names any jazz fan would recognize.
He initially financed it with income from his book "The
Modern Rhyming Dictionary" (Cherry Lane, 1981), and
his book and songwriting income helped keep it going. It
was reported after his death that his wife of 38 years,
the former Janet Suttle, planned to continue publishing
Gene was steadfast in his contempt for rock music, calling
it "junk" produced by "illiterates."
Mr. Lees supported his strong opinions with strong research.
At times that research took him far afield of his ostensible
subject. The first chapter of another essay collection,
"Singers and the Song" (Oxford, 1987), for example,
was a history of the English language from the 10th century
to the present.
In addition to seven collections of Jazzletter essays,
Mr. Leess books include biographies of Woody Herman,
Oscar Peterson, Johnny Mercer and the songwriting team Lerner
and Loewe. He was also a co-writer of the composer Henry
Mancinis autobiography and author of two novels. At
the time of his death he was working on a biography of Artie
Editor: while Gene was editing the US Downbeat
magazine, in 1961 he published an article on Bob Farnon
which caused quite a stir. I make no excuse for repeating
it once more, partly for the benefit of newer RFS members,
but also to remind us all of the importance of Robert Farnon
in the development of decent popular music during the second
half of the last century.
Afterthoughts by Gene Lees
From Downbeat Magazine, 16 February 1961
This issue is more or less devoted to arrangers and
composers, particularly Gil Evans.
Evans, you'll note, was born in Toronto, Canada.
Now it happens that Toronto produced another remarkable
arranger and composer about the same time, a man named Robert
Farnon. Evans left Canada (during his late adolescence)
for the United States; Farnon went to England. (Famous two
brothers, Dennis and Bryan, came to the U.S. Bryan is now
a television music director and Dennis is a well-known west
If you're a hippie, you've probably never heard of Farnon.
He's not the type that the esotericists write about; probably
they don't even deign to listen to him. But if your tastes
are not insular, and you have any insight at all into the
art of orchestration, chances are very good that you're
a member of that small group of devotees that I've dubbed
the Robert Farnon Irregulars. For they are certainly as
zealous a breed as the members of the Baker Street Irregulars,
those Arthur Conan Doyle fans who know the Sherlock Holmes
novels inside out. Farnon Irregulars are that way about
I consider myself one of the ranking members of the group.
Dizzy Gillespie, who is another Farnon wig remembers that
Bob used to be "a hell of a trumpet player." (Farnon says
he gave up trumpet after hearing Gillespie.) But I claim
to outrank even Dizzy: when I was a kid, I used to listen
to Farnon playing on an otherwise dismal broadcast from
Toronto called The Happy Gang. So there, Birks!
André Previn is a Farnon fan, and once said he considered
Farnon "the best living string writer." Barney Kessel in
turn proudly claims to have introduced Previn to Farnon's
music. Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, and Quincy Jones are Farnon
fans. And arranger Marion Evans is not only a Farnon admirer,
but has synthesized the Farnon sound better than anyone
I've heard. In fact, there is a whole group of New York
arrangers who are in love with Farnon's writing, and have
been influenced by it. They constitute a special subchapter
of the Irregulars, and are known as the Disciples. (They,
in turn, refer to Farnon as "the Guv'nor.") I suspect,
from listening to his charts, that Nelson Riddle is also
a member of the Irregulars.
Chicago bassist Johnny Pate turned out to be a Farnon Irregular.
I was very smug about having two Farnon EPs he didn't have
- until I found he had three that I didnt have. We're
Al Cohn is a Farnon fan too and Donald Byrd just walked
off with two miniature scores of Farnon compositions that
I got from the Guv'nor's Own Hand in England a couple of
years ago. (Note to Al; hit Byrd for them. Then I WANT THEM
Farnons reputation in America rests largely on a
series of mood music albums he did for English Decca, and
some light classical originals, including Canadian Impressions.
(Note to other Irregulars; that falling woodwind figure
in Lake of the Woods is a simulation of the cry of
a loon. And the angular lines in Alcan Highway are
meant to be evocative of the Rockies of British Columbia.)
All these albums were released in the U.S. by London, with
four now available on the subsidiary Richmond label. I urge
that you listen to them, particularly Canadian Impressions
and Pictures in the Fire.
After you've listened to the "conventional" writing of
Farnon for a while, you find that he is an incredibly subtle
orchestrator with a rich imagination and superb skill with
voicings. There's so much happening in his charts.
For an example, during a passage of fill in the bridge
of a pop tone in one of the mood albums, Farnon leaps the
orchestra up into another key, then modulates back gracefully
to the original key with a lovely figure, leaving you a
little breathless; it is as if you had just seen a gust
of wind lift autumn leaves, swirl them around in a dancing
vortex, and then let them tall gently to earth. And thats
just one bar of fill!
Farnon gave up writing music of that kind a couple of years
ago. Having earned a good bit of money doing movie scores
for both British and U.S. movies (he also scored a Broadway
show, but didn't dig the gig and went back to England),
he moved to Guernsey in the Channel Islands and is now writing
strictly classical music. Efforts by several jazz musicians
to get him to write albums for them has been fruitless -
For in March of this year, Farnon Irregular Gillespie is
going to Europe to record the Guvnors nearly-completed
Suite for Trumpet and Orchestra, probably with a
German symphony orchestra. Farnon is writing it specially
for Dizzy. At the same time, Oscar Peterson will record
another Farnon work, with Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen integrated
into the symphony orchestra. The two works are to be released
by Verve on one LP.
Watch for this album. I hope it turns out to be all that
Farnon and Peterson and Dizzy want it to be.
Then maybe the Farnon Irregulars will net a batch of new
Chords and Discords - Downbeat Magazine, 30 March,
Fair Farnon Fanfare
Add another Farnon fan to your list. I think he is largely
responsible for bringing the fresh air of enlightenment
to the BBC in London during the late 1940s and early '50s.
I thank you for informing me that Bob is appreciated by
so many people in jazz. Ridgewood, N. J / Ron Eyre
Funny you should mention Bob Farnon. My girl and I are
great English-movie goers, and in many a good picture there
seeps through some good jazz band backing. Even the B English
pictures have some fine charts. The vast majority have been
by Farnon. I'm sorry to say that as a "Farnon Irregular"
I've been quite irregular; I haven't a single LP. That will
be corrected. Brooklyn, N. Y. / A. J. Smith
Footnote from Gene Lees: It's getting rather hard to be
a Farnon Irregular. London Records has never recognized
the value of the property they have in the Farnon discs,
and they are hard to get. Several have been turned indifferently
over to London's secondary line, Richmond, and no attempt
has been made to make the public aware of their existence.
Editor: as RFS members will know, the special projects
mentioned by Gene (especially with Dizzy Gillespie) never
materialized, and happily for us Bob did not turn his back
on composing and arranging light music in favour of strictly