Jeanne Lee, Jazz Singer Who Embraced Avant-Garde, Dies at 61


Jeanne Lee
Jeanne Lee
Photo courtesy Naima Hazleton

Jeanne Lee, one of the great jazz singers and composers in the avant-garde tradition, an author, and a teacher of singing, died on October 25, 2000, in Tijuana, Mexico. She was 61.The cause was cancer, said her daughter Naima Hazelton.

Born in New York City in 1939, Lee graduated from Bard College in 1961. At Bard, she met Ran Blake, a pianist, and the two of them began to work as a duo. After winning the Apollo Theater’s Amateur Night in 1962, they recorded an album for RCA Victor, The Newest Sound Around, and went on their first European tour. In Europe, Ran Blake remembers, “she created such a sensation – they called her the heir of Billie Holiday.”

The album included jazz standards and Thelonious Monk tunes, but Ms. Lee and Mr. Blake subtracted swing, but added intellectual coolness, abstruse piano harmonies and vocal influences from Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington. This landmark album was re-issued on RCA France in 1978, by Bluebird CD (USA) in 1988, by BMG France in 1994 and in 1997 by BMG Belgium as part of BMG’s Collection Jazz! Series. In 1989 she and Mr. Blake recorded a duet album in the same style called You Stepped Out of a Cloud an OWL/EMI.

“In all the years I knew her, she was one of the great human beings,” Blake commented in a telephone interview. “She had a wonderful warmth with people, and she was an extremely good listener – almost like a muse. She was no Polyanna, but she willed it upon her friends to look for optimistic solutions. She always talked about the dreams she had, and they gradually began to form what she did in her music.”

In the 1960s, Ms. Lee developed a new, inventive vocal style, approaching words as sounds and using her teeth, lips and tongue to wring drama out of each syllable. She wrote: “As an improvising singer, there was always the option to scat, thus imitating the jazz instrumental sounds. There were also jazz lyricists who set words to instrumental solos. Neither of these options allowed space for the natural rhythms and sonorities or the emotional content of words…”

Jazz singer/composer Sheila Jordan first met Jeanne Lee in the 1970s, when they collaborated on a workshop for Cobi Narita. They then made a recording together with the Italian jazz bassist Marcello Melis called Free to Dance. “Jeanne Lee was an original sound,” she reminisced. “I always felt that when she sang, she was always smiling, she sang with a smile, her sound was a smile…” Jordan collaborated most recently with Lee on the 1994 Jane Bunnett CD The Water is Wide. “To sing with Jeanne was a beautiful spiritual trip for me. I loved to sing with Jeanne because I never felt any kind of competition, I always felt a kind of closeness, a ‘oneness’, it was like we became one sound,” Jordan mused. “She had a wonderful sense of lyrics and sound, and she was inspiring to sing with. I think she brought out the best in everyone.”

Jeanne Lee recorded over 40 albums and performed with some of the leading contemporary composers and improvisers of the later 20th century, both avant-garde musicians like Marion Brown, Carla Bley, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Peter Kowald and Reggie Workman and more mainstream player-composers such as Bobby McFerrin and Chick Corea. She was active as a composer, combining vocal jazz with music and dance, working often with the choreographer Mickey Davidson.

Ms. Lee married sound-poet David Hazelton in 1964, but returned to Europe in 1967, where she began a long association with vibraphonist and composer Gunter Hampel recording with on his Birth label on number occasions over the next two decades (The 9th July, Spirits, Journey To The Song Within, Fresh Heat). One of these, recorded in 1972, was an entirely improvised session with Anthony Braxton, Anthony Braxton at Town Hall.

In the mid-1960s, Lee composed music for the “sound-poetry” of Dick Higgins and Alison Knowles, among others, first at the Open Theater in Berkeley, California, as part of a multi-disciplinary company of artists, then in concert at Town Hall in New York. Lee was invited by John Cage to be one of four vocal soloists in his bicentennial work Renga and Apartment Building 1776, which she performed with several major American and European orchestras.

Working with Cage on Renga was a seminal experience for Lee. “I had attended opera, Broadway musicals and revues since childhood,” Lee wrote, “but I had never experienced the juxtaposition of freedom and organization, or diversity within unity, that Cage achieved in this composition. Since I had long been interested in combining improvised and composed music, poetry and dance into a unified whole, I was inspired by this experience to begin composing extended works.” With the assistance of a NEA grant in 1976, Lee adapted the 13th-century Persian poet Farid Ud-din Attar‘s Conference of the Birds into Prayer for Our Time, a two act, ten scene “jazz oratorio” with dance. She also collaborated with Diedre Murray and Pauline Oliveros on Flashes, written for dancer Blondell Cummings in 1993.

In the 1980s and 90s, Jeanne Lee made a number of important recordings, two of which she produced: Conspiracy, Travellin’ in Soul-Time, Ambrosia Mama, You Stepped Out of a Cloud, and Natural Affinities. The 1994 Lee/Waldron Duo album After Hours, released on Owl/EMI, received the Diapason D’Or among other awards. That same year, she recorded Nuba, which was co-composed with drummer Andrew Cyrille and saxophonist Jimmy Lyons. One track from this album, titled “Nuba One,” was included in soundtrack to the 1999 Jim Jarmusch film Ghost Dog: the Way of the Samurai. Lee’s performance of “Don’t Worry Now, Worry Later” was included in the Smithsonian collection The Jazz Singers 1919-1994, which was nominated for a 1997 Grammy.

Lee’s main focuses during the last ten years of her life were the Jeanne Lee Ensemble, featuring poetry, music and dance, and the Jeanne Lee/Mal Waldron Duo. The Ensemble has performed in festivals Europe, appearing at the 1997 Banlieue Bleues Festival in Paris. This past summer, Lee toured with the Orchestre National de Jazz and was the subject of a TV special focusing on a day in her life.

In 1998, Lee was named one of the “Hundred Most Influential in Jazz” by Jazziz magazine. She was included in the award-winning documentary film Femmes Du Jazz and the Women in Jazz documentary shown on A&E in the 1980s.

Lee earned a Masters Degree in Education from New York University in 1972, with the assistance of a Martin Luther King Fellowship for Urban Studies. Lee developed an integrated arts and education curriculum, and wrote the textbook Jam!: The Story of Jazz Music for students in grades 4 to 7. During the last five years of her life, she taught music and movement in the jazz departments at the Royal Conservatories in The Hague, Netherlands, and Antwerp, Belgium.

Two memorial services for Ms. Lee were held in New York in November, and services are planned in Belgium and France in coming months. In addition to Ms. Hazelton, Ms. Lee is survived by two children, Ruomi Lee-Hampel and Cavana Lee-Hampel, and a grandson.