Feather: Music Earwitness


With the recent death of Leonard Feather, the international jazz community lost one of its most ardent and respected members.

Feather, who died Sept. 21 at the age of 80, was a pianist, composer, lyricist, arranger and record producer. But it was probably his work as a writer that spread Feather’s name--and along with it the word of jazz--around the world. Beginning in the mid-'30s for London-based Melody Maker, Feather wrote pieces for such magazines as Down Beat, Esquire, Playboy, Japan’s Swing Journal and France’s Le Jazz Hot. Starting in the early ‘60s, he became the jazz critic for The Times, writing hundreds of profiles and performance reviews.

Feather also wrote numerous books, among them “Inside Be-Bop,” a 1945 volume that attempted to explain the then-new music; “A Passion for Jazz” and “From Satchmo to Miles,” collections of essays; and a memoir, “The Jazz Life: Earwitness to an Era.” But he was probably better known for his “Encyclopedia of Jazz,” first published in 1955, and the music’s sole standard reference text until 1988 when the Grove Dictionary of Jazz was published.

In the first revision of Feather’s book, called “The New edition of the Encyclopedia of Jazz” and published in 1959, Duke Ellington commented that “I don’t think there is anyone better equipped, musically, for this (book). He has listened with a musical ear, has accepted, or respected, the artists’ original intent, and has always been fair in weighing these factors. Of course, Feather was a musician first, and became a listener second, and a writer third, and was thrown into the category of critic.”


Indeed his forte, it would seem, was the historical essay, and he often described himself as a historian, rather than as a critic. In his Sunday pieces for The Times, which were a regular feature for more than 30 years, he focused on telling artists’ stories in a biographical manner, often illuminating portraits of the musicians’ lives with arcane facts.

Not comfortable with rock-flavored jazz, Feather definitely had a favored musical school: the swing of the ‘30s and ‘40s and be-bop and post-bop of the ‘50s and ‘60s, as well as any offshoots of these styles that were played by contemporary musicians.

Feather consistently sought out young artists to cheer about, strongly getting behind people like Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Benny Green and Nneena Freelon when they were all but unknown. He also championed the cause of women in jazz, writing extensively about female artists and producing records by the likes of pianists Mary Lou Williams and Hazel Scott and guitarist Mary Lou Osborne, beginning in the late 1930s. In Los Angeles, he praised the virtues to be found in Stacy Rowles’ lyrical brass work, the energy of Ann Patterson’s all- woman Maiden Voyage big band and the distinctive compositions of Toshiko Akiyoshi.

His feelings about the short shrift given women in jazz could be seen in this excerpt from a 1990 Times piece about Southern California’s female jazz players: “The career of (Ann) Patterson symbolizes the hazards that have plagued women instrumentalists since the dawn of jazz. Just as black musicians for decades played only in all-black bands, female musicians often wind up surrounded exclusively by women.”

Despite being such a prolific writer, Feather on many occasions said that he wished he had focused more on his career as a songwriter. He chiefly wrote blues numbers, and as the great altoist Cannonball Adderley noted in a spoken introduction before performing Feather’s “I Remember Bird” (on the Capitol album “Walk Tall”), “Leonard’s got, I guess, a natural feeling for the blues, because (the songs) seem to work out.”

Many of Feather’s blues were simple and direct, like “Evil Gal Blues,” written for and recorded by Dinah Washington in 1943, and “How Blue Can You Get?,” recorded by both Louis Jordan and B. B. King. The latter had this lyric: “I took you to my penthouse, you said it was just a shack / I bought you a $10 dinner, you said, ‘Thanks for the snack’ / I gave you seven children and now you want to give them back / How blue can you get?”

There will be no funeral services for Feather, who was a member of the Neptune Society. A memorial is in the planning stages, and more details will be announced in the near future.