You Can't Steal a Gift
By Gene Lees Yale University Press, 2001, 252 pages, $27.95
reviewed by Susan Markle
I love books that you can dive into wherever curiosity takes you. This is one of those books. Like this review it begins with "I" so you know whose point of view is numero uno. Gene Lees, the "I" in question, is a quintessential jazz journalist, a superb writer with a lifetime of experience in the jazz world, and a self-concept that led him from newspaper and magazine writing to editorship of Downbeat to, finally in 1980, the "vanity press" of publishing his very own Jazzletter which gave him control of when and how much he could say about any topic that interested him. This led to lengthy reflections on the lives of dozens of his artist friends, "minibiographies" which have filled five earlier books and this sixth in the series. This book is primarily about five persons, four musicians and Gene Lees.
Chapter One is about Gene himself, the life of a Canadian living close to the US border, knowing one black musician well, Oscar Peterson, and having not one ounce of prejudice, or insight into it, except for a feeling that all heroes were US citizens and (Oscar excepted) Canadians couldn't do jazz. The chapter follows himself across the border as a Montreal newspaper man in 1955 to Louisville where he confronted the irrationalities of Southern racism, and finally up to Chicago as incoming editor of Downbeat in 1959.
"I fell in love with Chicago the first time I saw it. It is visually the most striking city in America." The architecture, lakefront, culture, character, its jazz musicians of all eras, nightlife, mobs, schools, and other aspects of the Chicago scene consume a 12-page sequence that would bear publication anywhere as an essay on this city's place in the history of jazz.
The other four chapters are the minibiographies of four of Gene's heroes: Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Milt Hinton, and Nat Cole. All but Clark are gone now. Except for Nat, where more of the quotations are from Freddy Cole than from brother Nat, the basis of each bio is words from the musician himself, through intensive interviews and/or across the many years that Gene knew them.
Some of the stories are common knowledge to jazz buffs—the Gillespie spit ball in Cab Calloway's band, and the drunk who persuaded Nat Cole to take up singing instead of piano playing—while other events are less widely known. Lees also refers to many relevant biographies and autobiographies, with the notable exceptions of Dizzy's fat memoirs to BE or not to BOP and Hinton's brief Over Time autobio.
There is an East African conception Lees found in the works of historian James W. Loewen distinguishing two stages of death, sasha and zamani. "The recently departed ... are the sasha, the living dead. They are not wholly dead for they live on in the memories of the living, who can call them to mind, create their likeness in art, and bring them to life in anecdote. When the last person to know an ancestor dies, that ancestor leaves the sasha for the zamani, the dead..."
Lees finds his own fascination with the living and the "sasha,"(these four heros are still there) with true history documenting the memories of the living and the memories of the others about those recently departed whom they knew. The concepts are introduced in the preface, mentioned throughout the book, but not indexed. Better start at the beginning with those concepts!
However, the relevance of these fascinating distinctions is moot in a society that features both written autobiographies and an inundation of multimedia representations—constant "news" writings and frequent videos—of important personages.
Common themes turn up in each chapter— especially the effects of racism on the life of each man. Diz's teaching activities are legendary, as are Clark's as one of the great workshoppers for kids, and Milt Hinton's with his Hinton Scholarship for bass players, as well as his long years as the model bass player. Cole isn't credited with this talent, though his widespread influence is duly noted. With the exception of Milt, all these guys sing!
Because Lees is a song-writer, he feels free to criticize at length Nat Cole's choice of songs, and points out the racist overtones of many of their themes, "an instinctive avoidance of direct sexual provocation." (p216) Nat never gets the girl if she could be white.
Lees is sensitized to the supposedly racist contrast between "entertainer" and "artist" in the onstage persona of jazz musicians. "There is no question that Dizzy's onstage antics did him harm, contributing to the elevation of Parker to the role of bebop's almost sole creator." (p.82) In his strong emphasis on Dizzy, not Bird, as the real scholar, the worldwide interpreter, and the inveterate teacher of how bebop worked, Lees could barely stomach the dubious clown aspect of the man on stage, a distaste which extended to Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, and many others.
I have always shared George Wein's opinion on this topic. Said Wein "...in 1954... Dizzy was being criticized by our more pedantic and 'serious' and I'll use the word stupid jazz critics for being too comic on stage, not serious enough about his music." Wein asked Dizzy not to clown onstage at Newport '54, and "afterwards, I said here I am with an artist with a comic timing ability that rivals that of the geniuses like Charlie Chaplin in his ability to be a funny guy...a great clown, not clownish. Because Dizzy is a masterful comic." And Wein had tried to stamp it out. (to BE or not to BOP, p.374) To me too, Diz remained the master musician AND comic throughout his life. I loved it and laughed appreciatively.
The "sasha" mentioned above operates here, but those who never saw Diz at play need not depend on the memories of my generation—there are dozens of examples to see on film and video! Younger folks can decide for themselves. Gene Lees has strong opinions, based on his long life in the world of jazz. He does not hide them. But you may disagree and yet enjoy this book immensely. It's about friends of ours.