Word came today via Doug Ramsey that Gene Lees – former DownBeat editor, prolific liner note writer and biographer, and talented lyricist – has died.
A fellow Canadian, Lees was a good role model for bringing an 'outsider' viewpoint to chronicling America's native music. Along with songwriter Robbie Robertson, Lees showed that the invisible line only a few miles to the south of us did make a difference about how we viewed issues of race, class and culture.
I never met Lees, but we did speak on the phone – pre-Web days – a few times, and he was always quite helpful about providing insights into musicians he knew well. In particular, he provided a very welcome introduction to his lifelong friend Kenny Wheeler, for an interview that turned out to be my first feature in DownBeat in the mid-1990s. I thought that was a nice 'hand off'.
A few years later, I got the opportunity to write Lees' formal biographical entry in The Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.