Welcome to the 7th instalment of Book Love: a series in which I tell you all about the resources, guides, and inspirational books that I love. Today’s book is Singers & The Song by Gene Lees.
Gene Lees is a Canadian music critic, biographer, singer and lyricist. He is responsible for the English language lyrics to many tunes by Antonio Carlos Jobim, including the popular Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars (Corcovado). Singers & The Song is a collection of essays about vocal jazz including biographical looks at important singers and songwriters (Edith Piaf, Johnny Mercer, and Frank Sinatra to name a few), the evolution of the English language and it’s use in vocal jazz lyrics, and the cultural links between the dance band, the rise of radio, and the fall of the electric train transit system.
This book solidified Lees’ reputation as one of the finest jazz writers of his time and it’s easy to see why. Each essay is more intensely interesting than the last. Reading them has changed the way I think about vocal jazz by helping me understand the historical legacy to which we’re all a part of. For instance, in his first essay, Lees talks about how the etymology of individual jazz lyrics fit into a broader cultural context and reflects the moral attitudes of the time. I never considered how unusual it is for the canon of jazz standards to be made up of almost nothing but puritanical, sexless love (not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just almost never the case in real life).
It seems even more absurd when contrasted with the topic of Lees’ second essay: the music of Edith Piaf. Piaf sings about issues that American jazz standards never even get close to like prostitution (with Love For Sale being the obvious exception), stalking, death, and juvenile sexuality.
And all that is just the tip of the iceberg. I found myself having a paradigm shifting moment practically every few pages. This book came out in 1987 and in an expanded second edition in1999 with an additional seven essays included.
That’s it for Book Love // 07. Let me know what you’re reading in the comments. You can also check out the last post in the series, The Private Voice Studio Handbook.