Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Lee, Jeanne

Jeanne Lee was one of the most accomplished vocal interpreters of free jazz, who also sought to bring jazz education to children. Her style combined an emotional, spiritual, and moving quality with precise and flexible improvisation. Her commanding range enabled her to sing free jazz scat syllables in dense lines.

Despite her praise from critics - she is often regarded as the most significant singer who emerged from the avant-garde movement of the 1960s - she recorded little, and even less as a leader. Most of her work was recorded on smaller European or Japanese labels such as Birth, BYG Actuel, JCOA, ECM, Black Saint/Soul Note, OWL and Horo.

Born in New York City on January 29, 1939, Lee studied modern dance at Bard College from 1956 to 1960. At Bard, she met pianist Ran Blake, with whom she formed a duo. The pair performed at the Apollo Theater's Amateur Night contest, which they won. Their early concerts and recordings, such as The Newest Sound Around, won praise from critics for being the freshest direction in jazz vocals since Sarah Vaughan.

In his 2000 obituary for Lee in The New York Times, critic Ben Ratliff described Lee and Blake’s recording as having “subtracted swing, but added intellectual coolness, abstruse piano harmonies and vocal influences from Holiday and Washington; the record is a series of minimalist dreams.” The pair toured Europe in 1963 and the following year she moved to California and performed with reedist Ian Underwood and her husband, poet David Hazeltine.

She later married the German vibraphonist Gunter Hampel in 1967, with whom she had a daughter, Cavana Lee-Hampel, and a son, Ruomi Lee Hampel. Her musical collaboration with Hampel in Europe refined her style, as evidenced on her recordings in 1969 with saxophonist Archie Shepp and drummer Sunny Murray.

While at Bard, Lee had studied child psychology ,and in 1970 was awarded a Martin Luther King Fellowship for Urban Studies by New York University to develop a curriculum for elementary school students that combined music and dance with academic subjects. She wrote the textbook Jam!: The Story of Jazz Music for students in grades 4 to 7.

She recorded with alto saxophonist Marion Brown in 1970, multi-reedist Anthony Braxton in 1972, trumpeter Enrico Rava in 1973, alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons and drummer Andrew Cyrille in 1979, and (1979), and worked with pianist Cecil Taylor. Beginning in 1980, she focused on her own compositions, cerebral, elegant, and sophisticated amalgams of song, dance, and poetry. These include a five-part suite, Emergency, and a ten-act oratorio, A Prayer for Our Time.

Her recording After Hours, an album of duets with pianist Mal Waldron, consists of standards on which she emphasizes the sensitivity of the lyrics, except Waldron’s “Fire Waltz,” a wordless, casual, yet focused scat meditation. Her haunting expression on “Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” shows an affinity for the diversity of jazz styles within free jazz.

Her album Natural Affinities demonsrates the warm, floating, dark style that is similar to the tone Cassandra Wilson would have a decade later. “I Thought About You” is straightforward, if not unusually slow in its pacing, yet most of the album shows Lee’s haunting voice that was beyond categorization. “Mingus Meditations” even has her recitations of some of bassist Charles Mingus’s autobiography, Beneath the Underdog. Her style used teeth, tongue, and lips to wring each syllable out of the affecting lyrics.

Lee lived in New York from 1994 to 1996 and for the last five years taught music and movement at conservatories in Antwerp, Belgium, and in The Hague. In 2000, she began to suffer from colon cancer, without medical insurance. She died in Tijuana, Mexico on October 25, 2000, at age 61.

Select Discography

As a leader:

Natural Affinities, Owl, 1992

with Marion Brown:

Afternoon Of A Georgia Faun, ECM, 1970

with Carla Bley:

Escalator Over the Hill, ECM, 1971

with Rahsaan Roland Kirk:

Prepare Thyself to Deal with a Miracle, Atlantic, 1973

with Jimmy Lyons and Andrew Cyrille:

Nuba, Black Saint, 1979

with Mal Waldron:

After Hours, Owl, 1994

Soul Eyes, RCA Victor, 1997

with Reggie Workman:

Altered Spaces, Leo, 1992

Contributor: Sean Singer