Bill Lee, Bassist and Composer of Son Spike Lee’s Films, Dies at 94

Bill Lee, a jazz bassist and composer who scored his son Spike Lee’s early films, wrote folk-jazz operas, led a famous duo of bassists and was a brilliant sideman for Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and others, Wednesday. Died in the morning. His home in Brooklyn. He was 94 years old.

Spike Lee confirmed the death.

Over six decades, in thousands of live performances and more than 250 recorded albums, Mr. Lee’s melodious and soulful string bass has accompanied a pantheon of musical stars, including Duke Ellington, Arlo Guthrie, Odetta, Simon and Garfunkel, Harry Belafonte. , Ian and Sylvia, Judy Collins, Tom Paxton and Peter, Paul and Mary.

Mr. Lee wrote the soundtracks for Spike Lee’s first four feature films, including a musical challenge in “She’s Gotta Have It” (1986), a romantic black woman’s quest for freedom, which I was a satirical look at life at an all-black college. School Days” (1988), racial violence in “Do the Right Thing” (1989) and the plight of a black jazz musician in “Mo’ Better Blues” (1990).

Bill Lee had small parts in all but four roles in “Do the Right Thing” and Spike Lee’s sister, Joey. Bill Lee also scored an early Spike Lee short, “Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads”, the first student film to be made. exhibition 1983 at Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films Festival.

The feature films won largely positive reviews and made substantial profits. Bill and Spike Lee clashed in the early 1990s over family matters, money and other issues, ending their collaboration. Spike Lee’s later films – he directed more than 30, many of which he appeared in – were scored by trumpeter Terence Blanchard.

Born into a family of musicians and teachers in Alabama who instilled a love of music in himself and his siblings, Bill Lee learned early on the drums, piano and flute. He attended segregated small-town public schools and studied music at Atlanta’s historic Blackmore House College.

Influenced by listening to the great jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker in his early 20s, Mr. Lee mastered the double bass, the largest and lowest-pitched stringed instrument, and moved to New York City in 1959. Previously performed with small jazz groups in Atlanta and Chicago. .

During the next decade, Mr. Lee, who favored a straw hat and often recited his own poetry between numbers, often performed in smoky clubs in piano-bass duos and piano-bass-drum trios that accompanied jazz. They used to offer soul food. The western edge of Greenwich Village is squeezed between meatpacking houses and trucking depots on Manhattan’s banks of the Hudson River.

He has recorded extensively on Strata-Est Records, a musician-owned label, and founded and directed the New York Bass Violin Choir, a group of seven basses, sometimes accompanied by piano or Accompanied by saxophone. Critics have praised the ensemble for weaving a deft harmony of pastels and grit at Mr. Lee’s folk operas at Town Hall, Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall and the Newport Jazz Festival.

Several of his operas, including “One Mile East,” “The Depot” and “Baby Sweets,” were based on people and events from his early life in the South. He sometimes highlighted the singing talents of Mr. Lee and his two sisters, Consuela Lee Morehead, a jazz pianist and professor of music at Hampton University in Virginia, and Grace Lee Mims, a librarian, whose voices accompanied the stories. Brilliant color.

In a review of the Violin Choir’s performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1971, John S. Wilson of The New York Times wrote: “Mr. Lee works as bassist, singer and narrator of his sketches of small-town life in Snow Hill, Ala. Kya, who drew both his stories and his music from a rich vein of folk sources. His team of bassists, leaning on their untamed instruments, crafted passages that were by turns beautifully warm and sing-song or surprising. were so evocatively light and airy that one suspected there might be a few flutes hidden among them.”

In the 1970s, when the electric bass became the instrument of choice in many jazz ensembles because its subdued tones suited the commercial sounds of jazz-rock fusion, Mr. Lee, an acoustic bass purist, refused to go along. gave and lost work as a result. . “Some things you just can’t live with. I knew I could never live with myself,” he told the Boston Globe in 1992.

Spike Lee explores the problem of commercialism, with its racial implications, in “Mo’ Better Blues,” It stars Denzel Washington as a jazz trumpeter who confronts the exploitation of white club owners.

“Musicians are low-cost slaves, while athletes and entertainers are high-cost slaves,” Spike Lee told The Times when the film debuted. “It’s their music, but it’s not their nightclub, it’s not their record company. They only understand music, not business, so they’re treated as old-fashioned.”

Despite other differences, Bill and Spike Lee agreed on integrity. “Everything I know about jazz I got from my dad,” Spike Lee told The Times in 1990. I saw his integrity in how he didn’t just play any kind of music, no matter how much money he could make.

William James Edwards Lee was born July 23, 1928 in Snow Hill to Arnold Lee, a cornet player and band director at Florida A&M University, and Alberta Grace (Edwards) Lee, a classical concert pianist and teacher. In addition to his sisters Consuela and Grace, he had four other siblings, Clifton, Arnold Jr., Leonard and Clarence.

His maternal grandfather, William J. Edwards, a graduate of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, founded the Log Cabin Arts School for black students in Snow Hill in 1893. By 1918, Snow Hill Normal and Industrial Institute had 24 buildings and 3,000 buildings. 400 students pursuing academic subjects and vocational training. Mr. Edwards died a few years later, but the institute survived as a separate public school until 1973, when it closed. Bill Lee graduated from there in the mid-1940s.

Mr. Lee and his first wife, Jacqueline (Shelton) Lee, an art teacher, had five children: Shelton (Spike), Christopher, David, Joey, and Sanek. After Jacqueline’s death in 1976, Mr. Lee married Susan Kaplan. They had one son, Arnold. Christopher died in 2013. Mr Lee’s sister Consuela died in 2009 at the age of 83, and his sister Grace Lee Mums died in 2019 at the age of 89.

In addition to Spike Lee, he is survived by his wife; his sons David, Cinque and Arnold; his daughter, Joey; a brother, A. Clifton Lee; and two grandchildren.

After arriving in New York, Mr. Lee settled in Fort Greene, a Brooklyn neighborhood that became a magnet for black musicians and other creative artists who took pride in their lifestyle and their art. The neighborhood was the setting for “She’s Gotta Have It.”

Lee’s household, overlooking Fort Greene Park, had all televisions turned off but was immersed in music, often with late-night jam sessions, drawing noise complaints from neighbors but jazz. giving birth to artists who found their voices in the heart of Brooklyn.

During a 2008 interview with The Times at his home, Mr. Lee played piano and double bass. Reporter Corey Kilgannon wrote, “His music has complex harmonies of bebop and hardbop, but also a sincere, down-home, church feel.” “His passages move to interesting and unexpected places, but they resolve long ago in a way that is simple and sincere, grounded and somehow very satisfying.”

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