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November 2000

Gene Lees
Arranging the Score: Portraits of the Great Arrangers

Gene Lees, in addition to being a widely published writer on jazz and pre-rock popular music, is also an accomplished lyricist and singer. After serving as Down Beat’s editor from 1959 to 1961, Lees wrote as a freelancer for Saturday Review, Stereo Review and High Fidelity, and later published his own noncommercial Jazzletter, from which Arranging the Score’s profiles were gathered.

Over the years, Lees has consistently brought to his interview-based reportage intelligence and musical insights that are lacking in others’ work. Moreover, he is a supreme wordsmith with a novelist’s sense of structure. Even when one reads his essays on such unlikely subjects as semisymphonic pop music arrangers Percy Faith and Robert Farnon one is struck by Lees’ felicity of phrase. You’ll want to replay Lees’ subjects’ recordings after reading the essays on Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan, and even more so with the piece on the brilliant late 1920s arranger Bill Challis, whose Bix Beiderbecke-inspired harmonic and rhythmic innovations graced the bands of Jean Goldkette, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Fletcher Henderson and Paul Whiteman.

Lees also discusses Les Brown and his arrangers, Frank Comstock and Ben Homer; jazzman, pop and film composer Johnny Mandel; film and TV giant Henry Mancini; ex-Charlie Barnet and Glenn Miller sideman Billy May, who later scored works for Sinatra; and Mel Powell, the teenaged jazz pianist and composer who turned everyone around with Benny Goodman’s 1941-42 band, only to astound the same people by leaving jazz for decades in academia and European-styled composition. Arranging the Score’s last two chapters are devoted to pop-vocal session orchestrator Marion Evans and the versatile Roger Kellaway—an otherwise fascinating piece that contains the book’s few typos. In addition to misspelling George Balanchine’s and Dennis Mackrel’s names, there is the marvelously garbled “Brookmeyer never had the 30-second note chops that a lot of the players had. He’d play quarter notes.” And what about Cassell’s lack of a personal name index and the discrepancy between Mancini’s postscripted death date in June 1994 and the slightly earlier reference to a shared jazz cruise with Lees in October of that same year?

Apart from these gaffes, though, those who enjoy well-written prose should seek no further than Lees. He is a descriptive essay master, a form in which he blends both historical and geographical data, a multitude of interweaving primary source quotations, reconstructed dialogues, musical analyses and career overviews. Moreover, Lees delights in skating over time periods in the lives of his subjects with a grace and pulse that impel the reader forward, interconnecting links so seamlessly that one is unaware of his deft manipulation of the tools of his trade: He begins the book with Kenny Wheeler and ends some 300 pages later, ever so smoothly, with a casually phrased two-line back-reference to the same man.

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