Feather, Leonard Geoffrey

views updated

Feather, Leonard Geoffrey

(b. 13 September 1914 in London, England, d. 22 September 1994 in Encino, California), jazz musician and author, often called the dean of American jazz critics.

Leonard Feather was one of two children of Nathan Feather, who was in the real estate business, and Felicia Zelinski, a homemaker. Feather was educated at St. Paul’s School and University College, London, where he graduated in 1932. His parents expected him to follow his father into real estate, but music intervened. He took up clarinet and piano at an early age and then began arranging. His interest in jazz began after hearing Louis Armstrong’s recording of “West End Blues.” After graduating from college he became involved in London’s jazz culture and started to write about the music as well as to compose and perform. His first article was published in 1933 in the English magazine Melody Maker, and it was the saxophonist Benny Carter who, while in England during the early 1930s, told Feather to write. Carter and Feather maintained a lifelong friendship.

Feather’s affiliation with the American music magazine Down Beat began in October 1935, the year he made the first of several visits to the United States. He moved to New York in 1939. On 18 May 1945, Feather married Jane Larabee; the couple had a daughter, Lorraine. He became a U.S. citizen in 1948.

One of Feather’s early accomplishments was to persuade Robert Goffin of Esquire to have that magazine poll sixteen jazz critics concerning the condition of jazz in 1943. This led to what was called the “First Esquire All-American Jazz Concert,” held at the Metropolitan Opera House in January 1944. One of the greatest gatherings of musical talent on one stage at any single time, it included performances by Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins, Jack Teagarden, Billie Holiday, Roy Eldridge, and Mildred Bailey. There were other Esquire concerts as well as the publication for several years of the annual Esquire Jazz Book, to which Feather contributed several features. The magazine also sponsored a series of all-star recording sessions for RCA, Commodore, and Continental. Much of the resulting music was produced by Feather, who in subsequent years produced music both for other composers and under his own name.

Feather was a composer and lyricist who sometimes worked in collaboration with his wife, Jane. He played piano and composed the tunes for a number of recording sessions, including “Evil Gal Blues” and “Blowtop Blues” for the first record by the vocalist Dinah Washington. Other noted jazz artists who performed his compositions were B. B. King and Mel Tormé, along with such famous leaders of the swing era as Duke Ellington (who hired Feather as his press agent), Benny Carter, Lionel Hampton, and Louis Armstrong. In 1954 Feather toured Europe with a program called “Jazz Club USA” after his Voice of America radio series. Billie Holliday was the initial headliner. He also provided arrangements for bands, including Count Basie’s, and wrote music for The Weary Blues, a reading of poems by Langston Hughes and produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1958.

During the late 1940s and the 1950s, Feather became embroiled in the discussion about the then-new style referred to as bop or bebop, espoused by Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and others. Feather’s first important book, published in 1949, was Inside BeBop, which in later editions was called Inside Jazz. This volume formed the background for much writing on bop over the next twenty years. Feather’s truly great publication appeared in 1955: The Encyclopedia of Jazz, a catalog of biographical and other data assembled with the help of his fellow jazz critic Ira Gitler. The material was revised several times over the years. At the time Feather died the two were working on a new edition, The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz, published in 1999. In all, Feather produced eleven books on his chosen subject, in addition to album notes for thousands of LP records.

Even as he grew older, Feather’s views on jazz continued to be of importance to his audience. While at Metronome in the mid-1940s, he created the “blindfold test” for judging music. On the air, Feather and other authorities would try to identify musicians and styles from blind listening to recordings. Although he did not embrace the jazz-fusion movement of the 1960s and 1970s, he continued to have the support of his readers. For more than fifty years there were few events relating to jazz that he did not observe and comment upon for Down Beat, Esquire, Metronome, Playboy, Jazz Times, or the Los Angeles Times. These events ranged from the classic jazz of the 1930s to the first Newport Jazz Festival in 1954 to the 1993 jazz concert at the White House of President Bill Clinton. In 1964 he earned the first Grammy for journalism ever awarded, and in August 1983 Feather received the Down Beat Lifetime Achievement Award.

Feather was the New York editor of Down Beat until the late 1950s, when he moved to Los Angeles and became a contributor to the Los Angeles Times. He also lectured at Marymount College and later taught at the University of California at Riverside and at Los Angeles, and at California State University at Northridge. During the course of his career he served as historian of the National Association of Jazz Educators, as a member of the Newport Jazz Festival Advisory Board, and as a member of the governing board of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Feather’s other activities included such jobs as jazz program director (1950–1952) and host of a weekly series (1967–1969) for the Voice of America. He hosted an ABC Radio musical quiz show called Platter-Brains from 1953 to 1958 and produced music broadcasts for the BBC (1959) and KNBC-TV (1971).

Feather died in Encino, California, nine days after his eightieth birthday, from complications caused by pneumonia. Thoroughly familiar with the music business, Feather used his knowledge to support varied styles of jazz in an even-handed way for over a half-century. A slim person of medium height, he believed in racial integration long before the practice became socially acceptable. Always “reliably professional,” he viewed jazz as a long-term development in the performing arts. In a Down Beat tribute, John McDonough noted that Leonard Feather, “through his consistency,… achieved a rare passage for a working reporter: He evolved from journalist to historian.”

Leonard Feather’s scrapbooks are at the Lionel Hampton School of Music at the University of Idaho and, together with other material, are summarized on the website www.jazzcentralstation.com. In Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler, The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz (1999), the citation for Feather is unusually detailed and marks the first time the writer appeared in one of his works. See also Feather’s The Jazz Years: Earwitness to an Era (1987). Ian Carr et al., Jazz, the Rough Guide (1995), contains biographical and discographic material as does Roger D. Kinkle, The Complete Encyclopedia of Popular Music and Jazz: 1900–1950 (1974). Contemporary Authors, vols. 61–64 and 146, contains extensive details on Feather’s career. His recording activities are represented by Dinah Washington’s Greatest Hits (LP, Pickwick International, no. SPC-3536), which contains numbers by Feather, his wife, Jane, and Lionel Hampton, recorded about 1960; Night Blooming Jazzmen (CD, Jazz Heritage, no. 513182A), a 1971 disk that features Feather as pianist, arranger, composer, and session director; and The First Esquire Concert (CD, Laserlight, no. 15723), a recording of the 1944 performance. An obituary by Peter Watrous is in the New York Times (24 Sept. 1994), and John McDonough’s tribute is in Down Beat (Dec. 1994).

Barrett G. Potter