Julie Kelly at Catalina's Bar and Grill

Julie Kelly at Catalina's Bar and Grill

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Origins of Gene Lees’ The JazzLetter – The First Jazz Blog?


© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


The editorial staff at JazzProfiles subscribed to The JazzLetter for many years.

Its author, Gene Lees, who died in April, 2010 at the age of eighty-two, published The JazzLetter in monthly editions of 6-8 manuscript-sized, printed pages and mailed them to his subscribers.

Gene would often get behind in his efforts to put it out on a monthly basis and a clump of them would sometimes arrive in one envelope.

Who cared. Whenever one or more copies of The JazzLetter hit my mailbox, it marked a joyous occasion as I was about to be transported into some aspect of the world of Jazz and its makers by Gene Lees, whom Glen Woodcock of the Toronto Sun once labeled: “… the best writer on Jazz in the world today.”

Although, Tim Berners-Lee devised the first web browser and server at CERN and launched the World Wide Web in August, 1991, about ten years after Gene began publishing The JazzLetter in 1981, the publication never made an appearance on the world-wide-web.

Irrespective of the fact that The JazzLetter never went digital, I have always thought of it as the first Jazz blog.

Perhaps after you read this account from Gene’s introduction to his Cats of Any Color compilation on the origins of The JazzLetter you, too, might agree that the publication deserves to be considered in this fashion.

Also, when you read Gene’s account of how it all began, you may get a sense of nostalgia at the thought that such a time will never come again.

© -  Gene Lees/Da Capo Press, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Often it will be found that someone speaks a third language with the ac­cent of the second. My Spanish, for example, has a French accent. Gene Kelly spoke French with a slight Italian accent. He grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Philadelphia.

Over the years, I have also observed that anyone who has had two profes­sions practices the second with the disciplines and outlook of the first. You can see this in movie-makers. Directors who were first actors elicit fine work from their performers—for example, Richard Attenborough. Consider the miraculous performance he got from Robert Downey, Jr. as the English Charles Chaplin. Or the performances Robert Redford gets from actors, as in Ordinary People and A River Runs Through It. Or Sydney Pollack and Mark Rydell, both of whom had been actors, in any number of pictures.

Alfred Hitchcock, who early manifested a skill in things mechanical, went to work for a telegraph company, then broke into the film industry as a tide-card illustrator. His pictures were always visual, mechanical, and short on great acting, no matter the idolatry toward his pictures fashionable in film circles. He was quoted as saying that actors should be treated like cattle, and his movies look like filmed storyboards. David Lean began as a film editor, and though his films—The Bridge on the River Kwai - for example— reflect prodigious gifts for working with actors, they also reveal his first training in that they are magnificently, meticulously photographed and edited.


I was trained as an artist, but my first profession was journalism. I had been a newspaper reporter, editor, and foreign correspondent for ten years before I became the editor of Down Beat in April, 1959, and a thirst for factuality would stay with me. I looked the magazine over and sent a memo to staff members and contributors saying that its first duty was to be a good magazine, literate and readable. If it did not fulfill that obligation, it could not serve its subject matter well. I also urged a concern for factuality, in contrast to the opinion-mongering that comprised much, even most, of jazz criticism, and still does. To say something is exciting or boring or touching or disturbing is only to confess what excites, bores, touches, or disturbs you. It is not a fact about the work of art in question, it is a fact about the critic, a projection of his or her own character and experience.

I did what everyone did at Down Beat: I wrote record reviews. Project­ing your opinions in print is the fastest way in the world to alienate the vic­tims of your inescapable subjectivity. In any case, unless you are like Addison DeWitt in All About Eve and enjoy causing pain, writing criticism ain't your thing. So I fired myself as a record reviewer soon after joining the magazine. I have written very, very little jazz criticism, which is why I was in early years discomfited to see myself referred to as a jazz critic, later em­barrassed, and finally resigned to it.


My education in jazz came not from magazines and books but from studies of composition, piano (with Tony Aless, among others), and gui­tar—and from long, rich conversations in such places as Jim and Andy's bar in New York with Phil Woods, Gerry Mulligan, Ben Webster, Cole-man Hawkins, Hank d'Amico, Will Bradley, Jimmy McPartland, Lockjaw Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, J.J. Johnson, and many more. I found that jazz history, as it was generally accepted, was to a large extent a fiction that has been agreed upon, as Voltaire said of all history. It dawned on me that, since such founding figures as Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines were still with us, I had met nearly all the great jazz musicians who had ever lived, and knew some of them, such as Bill Evans and Woody Herman, intimately. At the same time, because of my activities as a lyricist, I met and in some cases came to know many of the major song­writers who had inspired and influenced me, including Howard Dietz, Arthur Schwartz, Harold Arlen, Johnny Green, Hoagie Carmichael, Mitchell Parrish, Harry Warren, and particularly Johnny Mercer, some­one else who became a close friend.

After leaving Down Beat toward the end of 1961, I settled in New York and devoted myself primarily to songwriting. I spent the early 1970s in Toronto, then settled in 1974 in Southern California, where I have re­mained ever since, the climate being one of its blandishments. By the end of the 1970s, my songs had been recorded by Mabel Mercer, Frank Sina­tra, Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan (my dear, dear friend!), Ella Fitzgerald,Nancy Wilson, Joe Williams, Carmen McRae, Peggy Lee (another dear friend), and so many others that my royalties, at least in theory, made it possible for me to retire, and I tried. I soon found that I missed my friends, among them all the jazz musicians I had come to know since 1959.

On a morning in May, 1981, I sent a questionnaire to several hundred persons, asking whether I should start a letter—not a newsletter, giving record reviews, nightclub listings, and current news, but a letter on matters of interest to all of us. I specified that it would contain no advertising. Within a week, I had a mailbox full of letters urging me to do it, some of them containing checks. I realized that I was committed. Broadcaster Fred Hall and composer-pianist-arranger Roger Kellaway gave the Jazzletter its name. I still remember the list of early subscribers. It included Phil Woods, Gerry Mulligan, Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Shelly Manne, Benny Carter, Jimmy Rowles, John Lewis, Art Farmer, Kenny Wheeler, Kenny Drew, Sahib Shihab, Rob McConnell, Henry Mancini, Johnny Mandel, Julius La Rosa, Jackie and Roy Kral, Robert Farnon, and Audrey Morris, such record-company executives as Charles Lourie, Bruce Lundvall, and Ken Clancy, and a number of critics and jazz historians, including Whitney Balliett, Doug Ramsey, Grover Sales, James Lincoln Collier, Philip Elwood, and the late Leonard Feather, as well as academics.

The Jazzletter addressed a list of subscribers almost all of whom I knew personally. It was written for musicians, dealing with matters that concern musicians—jazz musicians to a large extent but not exclusively. I did not de­sign it to exclude laymen, and indeed whenever technical discussions proved necessary, tried to make them as clear and brief as possible. But in general, the publication assumed a measure of knowledge in its readers. I asked gui­tarist and composer Mundell Lowe what he thought the limits of Jazzletter subject matter should be. He said, "Anything that is of interest to us"

And what was of acute interest to jazz musicians was the history of the music and its makers, whether one of the older players and the era he or she had lived through, or younger ones, anxious to know about the times they did not know. And given that I faced no limits in length, I was able to write extended pieces that simply would not be practical in most mag­azines for structural reasons. I soon found that I was recording the life stories, derived from extended interviews, of musicians who might de­serve book-length biographies but were unlikely to get them, the nature of publishing being what it is. I found myself writing what I came to think of as mini-biographies.

In time, Oxford University Press published four anthologies of these essays, each of them gathered loosely around a central theme. Cats of Any Color was the fourth of these collections. Cassell has published a fifth, Arranging the Score, Yale University Press is publishing a sixth, and a sev­enth is pending. I know of no other publication that has produced a comparable quantity of anthologized material. Two of the books received the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award.”

Thanks to the collective efforts of many Jazz bloggers, the spirit of The Jazzletter lives on today in a variety of digital formats.

But for those of us who looked forward to that thud hitting the front door mat announcing that Gene had sent out another batch of his inimitable Jazzletter essays, musings and commentaries, there will never be anything quite like it again.