Leonard Feather; Jazz Critic, Composer
Leonard Geoffrey Feather, a gifted composer and producer who, in the course of his career, gained wide recognition as a jazz critic, died Thursday in Encino. He was 80.
Feather, who had spent his final months completing a revision of his acclaimed “Encyclopedia of Jazz,” had been undergoing treatment for pneumonia for the last six weeks. He died at Encino Hospital, where he had celebrated his birthday nine days before his death.
Described by jazz great Louis Armstrong as “one cat that really knows what’s going on,” and by Leonard Bernstein as an author who “opens one’s eyes to a perspective view of jazz that is astonishingly new and rich,” Feather’s creative background brought musical authenticity and a well-informed viewpoint to his criticism, which appeared regularly in the Los Angeles Times.
He was also, however, an artist who had a significant impact on jazz. He described himself as a modestly talented clarinetist and pianist, but he was a skilled and busy songwriter and composer.
Among his more than 200 published compositions are “How Blue Can You Get” (a hit for B.B. King), “Blues for Yesterday” (recorded by Armstrong), “I Remember Bird” (recorded by Cannonball Adderley, Oliver Nelson and others), “Signing Off” (recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, Andre Previn and other artists), “Born on a Friday” (recorded by Cleo Laine) and “Twelve Tone Blues” (recorded by Yusef Lateef).
As a producer and musical entrepreneur, Feather was instrumental in the hiring of Benny Carter for the BBC Dance Orchestra in the early 1930s. In the next decade, he produced and composed for sessions by Armstrong, Carter, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie, and he wrote arrangements for Count Basie.
Feather also produced the debut recordings of Sarah Vaughan, George Shearing and Dinah Washington. His “Evil Gal Blues,” “Salty Papa Blues” and “Blowtop Blues” launched Washington’s career. In the mid-1940s, he was responsible for establishment of the annual Esquire jazz polls, and in 1945, he produced the first record album chronicling the work of female jazz musicians.
With the publication of “Inside Be-Bop” (1949), and the release of the initial “Encyclopedia of Jazz” (1955), Feather became established as an important jazz journalist, commentator and critic. Subsequent writings included further editions of the “Encyclopedia” (with Ira Gitler), “From Satchmo to Miles,” “The Passion for Jazz” and “The Jazz Years: Earwitness to an Era.”
As an educator, he taught classes on jazz at UCLA, Cal State Northridge, UC Riverside and Loyola Marymount.
From the early 1960s, when he moved from New York to Los Angeles, Feather served as the jazz critic of The Times, which distributed his writings to other media. His reviews and articles also appeared in magazines around the world, including Esquire, Playboy, downbeat, Metronome and Swing Journal in Japan.
In 1964, Feather won the first journalism Grammy ever given by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
His other awards included an Emmy nomination as producer of KNBC’s “The Jazz Show” (1971); an award for excellence in local programming on KUSC’s “The Leonard Feather Show,” downbeat’s Lifetime Achievement Award (1983); an honorary doctorate in music from Boston’s Berklee College of Music (1984); a Greater Los Angeles Press Club Journalism Award (1985) and the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Distinguished Journalism Award (1987).
His last few months were spent completing (with co-author Gitler) the final editing on “The Oxford Encyclopedia of Jazz,” a one-volume revision of his oft-updated “Encyclopedia of Jazz” reference works. The new volume is scheduled for publication in 1995.
Born in London, Feather studied piano and clarinet at St. Paul’s School and University College.
He is survived by his wife, Jane, and a daughter, singer/songwriter Lorraine.
Funeral arrangements have not yet been announced.