802 Bookshelf: “You Can’t Steal A Gift: Dizzy, Clark, Milt, And Nat”

by Gene Lees, Yale University Press 2001, 269 pages, $27.95 hardcover

Volume CII, No. 1January, 2002

Bill Crow

Gene Lees practices the art of the illuminating essay in his subscription publication Jazzletter, a monthly gem that originates at his home in Ojai, California. Every so often he assembles a group of related essays into a book, and his books usually become standards on the jazz shelf. His “Waiting for Dizzy,” “Meet Me at Jim and Andy’s,” “Singers and the Song,” and his biographies of Woody Herman and Oscar Peterson are probably the best known of the 14 books he has written. A songwriter and singer himself, he writes from an inside knowledge of the music, illuminated by his personal friendships with most of the musicians.

In an earlier volume, “Cats of Any Color,” Lees examined the careers of a number of jazz players in the light of the racism that has been our heritage in this country, and its effect on the musicians and their music. This book considers the same problem from a slightly different angle. In writing about the four subjects of this book – Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Milt Hinton and Nat Cole – Lees says, “All are men who had every reason to embrace bitterness…and didn’t.”

The title of the book comes from a conversation between Phil Woods and Dizzy. Phil told Lees about his feelings after touring with Dizzy in 1956. He was devastated at having been criticized for “stealing” his idol Charlie Parker’s music. Dizzy told him, “You can’t steal a gift. Bird gave the world his music, and if you can hear it, you can have it.”

The subjects of this book shared their knowledge of music generously with anyone who showed an interest in it. Dizzy was known as the great teacher of modern harmony and rhythm, and Hinton and Terry spent their careers giving support to young musicians. Race or gender was never an issue with any of them. Anyone with an interest in learning could count on assistance from these generous men.

Since Lees knew them all personally, he has been able to present the reader with an intimate view of each of them. With a sure touch as an interviewer, he asks the right questions and gets fascinating responses. (Gillespie’s comments on Charlie Parker’s music are especially interesting.) As he elicits the story of each man’s musical career, he supplies the pertinent social framework that adds to understanding.

An opening essay by Lees on his own introduction to the jazz world and to U.S. racism, when he emigrated here from Canada in 1955, puts the author’s viewpoint in perspective and prepares the reader for the main course. Nat Hentoff has written a warm, personal introduction, and a few well-chosen photographs add a welcome visual note. A copy of this book has been added to the Local 802 library.