Jump to content

Bill Lee (musician)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Bill Lee
Publicity Photo of Bill Lee
Publicity Photo of Bill Lee
Background information
Birth nameWilliam James Edwards Lee
Also known asWilliam J. E. Lee
Born(1928-07-23)July 23, 1928
Snow Hill, Alabama, U.S.
DiedMay 24, 2023(2023-05-24) (aged 94)
New York City, U.S.
Occupation(s)Composer, conductor, actor
Instrument(s)Double bass, bass guitar
LabelsStrata-East Records, Columbia Records
Formerly ofAretha Franklin, Odetta, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Terence Blanchard

William James Edwards Lee III (July 23, 1928 – May 24, 2023) was an American jazz bassist and composer, known for his collaborations with Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin, his compositions for jazz percussionist Max Roach, and his session work as a "first-call" musician and band leader to many of the twentieth-century's most significant musical artists, including Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Harry Belafonte, Peter, Paul and Mary, Simon and Garfunkel, Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie, Billy Strayhorn, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger, among many others.[1][2][3][4]

Lee recorded three critically acclaimed albums at the Black independent label Strata-East Records: (1) The Descendants of Mike and Phoebe: A Spirit Speaks; (2) The Brass Company: Colors, in collaboration with his two sisters; and (3) The New York Bass Violin Choir, a collaboration of seven basses, which JazzdaGama described as "a true Holy Grail for all musicians," and which Lee classified as one of his "narrative folk, jazz operas" along with "One Mile East," both of which were inspired by memories of the former slave quarters near his childhood home.[1][2][4][5][6] Stagings at New York City's Central Park, Lincoln Center and Newport Jazz Festival followed all of these recordings.[7]

Trumpeter Theo Croker called Lee "... [O]ne of the great American composers of our time. His harmonic beauty was unique and his choice of melody always struck a chord inside of the listener. He was a masterful orchestrator of imagery."[4] In 2008, The New York Times noted that "His music has the complex harmonies of bebop and hard bop, but it also has a sincere, down-home, churchy feel. His passages move to interesting and unexpected places, but they resolve before long in a way that is simple and sincere, earthy and somehow very satisfying."[8]

Featured in more than 250 record albums, and on such songs as "Puff the Magic Dragon" and "Mr. Tambourine Man," Lee also appeared in several movies made by his son, acclaimed film-maker Spike Lee, in addition to creating original soundtracks for She's Gotta Have It (1986), School Daze (1988), Do the Right Thing (1989), and Mo' Better Blues (1990).[2][3][6]


Lee's childhood was described by Strata-East co-founder Charles Tolliver as "the personification of the Black musicians' experience after Reconstruction."[4] One of seven musical siblings born in Snow Hill, Alabama, in 1928, Lee was the son of Arnold Wadsworth Lee, a cornet player and band director at Florida A&M University, and Alberta Grace (née Edwards), a concert pianist. "My learning in music started with my mother and father," Lee said.[2][6][7]

A 1951 graduate of the historically Black Morehouse College in Atlanta, Lee "discovered the bebop recordings of Charlie Parker," which led to him "master[ing] the double bass, the largest and lowest-pitched stringed instrument, and performing with small jazz groups in Atlanta and Chicago before migrating to New York City in 1959".[2][9]

A sideman for some of the most famous names in music, Lee was also often the only other musician performing, including on the original release of Dylan's 1965 classic "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" and on Gordon Lightfoot's "Oh, Linda" from the prize-winning 1964 eponymous album.[10][11] Other musical collaborators included:[3]



  • Sonny Darling, She's Gotta Have It, Island, 1986.
  • Bassist in the Phyllis Hyman Quartet, School Daze, Columbia, 1988.
  • Father of the Bride, Mo' Better Blues, Universal, 1990.


Personal life[edit]

In 1954, Lee married Jacqueline ("Jackie") Shelton, an art teacher, the same year she graduated from Atlanta's historically Black Spelman College.[18][19] Together, they had five children: film director Spike Lee (b. 1957), Christopher (b. 1959, d. 2014),[20] still photographer David Lee (b. 1961), screenwriter and actress Joie Lee (b. 1962), and filmmaker Cinqué Lee (b. 1966). In 1959, the family moved to Fort Greene, Brooklyn.[2]

In 1976, Jackie died of cancer, and Susan Kaplan, whom Lee later married, moved in.[2] They are the parents of alto saxophone player Arnold ("T@NE") Lee (b. 1985).[21][22] Spike Lee had a negative public reaction to his father's new relationship, and has been quoted as saying, "My mother wasn't even cold in her grave." Hard feelings between the two intensified after Spike Lee released Jungle Fever, a film about the beginning and end of an extramarital interracial relationship, which was interpreted as a judgment on Lee and Kaplan's relationship, given the latter's race.[23]

On October 25, 1991, Lee was arrested for carrying a small bag of heroin during a police drug sweep of a park near his home.[24] Although the case was dismissed, Lee would later say of his arrest, "'I'm glad I was arrested. It woke me up.... Dope was not part of my life until I was 40 years old,' which means he started getting involved with heroin ... around the time his wife was dying of cancer."[7][23][25] Soon after, however, Lee and Spike Lee had a falling out.[7] In 1994, the elder Lee said they had not spoken in two years.[25]

On May 24, 2023, Lee died at his home in Fort Greene. He was 94.[2]


  1. ^ a b "Bill Lee, Jazz Musician and Father of Spike Lee, Dies at 94". Pitchfork. May 24, 2023. Retrieved June 1, 2023.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h McFadden, Robert D. (May 25, 2023). "Bill Lee, 94, Bassist and Composer for Son Spike Lee's Films, Is Dead". The New York Times. p. A21. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved June 1, 2023.
  3. ^ a b c "'Standing on the Shoulders of Those Who Came Before Me'". Local 802 AFM. February 1, 2009. Retrieved June 1, 2023.
  4. ^ a b c d Scott, Ron (June 1, 2023). "Composer and bassist Bill Lee dies at 94". New York Amsterdam News. Retrieved June 1, 2023.
  5. ^ Gama, Raul Da (April 26, 2015). "The New York Bass Violin Choir: Bill Lee". Jazz da Gama. Retrieved June 1, 2023.
  6. ^ a b c ALLAH, MAL'AKIY 17 (June 1, 2023). "Jazz bassist Bill Lee, transitions at 94". New York Amsterdam News. Retrieved June 1, 2023.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  7. ^ a b c d St. Martin, Emily (May 25, 2023). "Bill Lee, jazz bassist and father of filmmaker Spike Lee, dies at 94". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved June 1, 2023.
  8. ^ Kilgannon, Corey (July 25, 2008). "It's Spike's 80-Year-Old Father, and All That Jazz". City Room. Retrieved June 1, 2023.
  9. ^ Smith, Harrison (May 25, 2023). "Bill Lee, bassist and composer who scored son Spike Lee's films, dies at 94". The Washington Post. Retrieved June 1, 2023.
  10. ^ cn
  11. ^ Williams, P. (2004). Bob Dylan: Performing Artist, 1960-1973 (2nd ed.). Omnibus Press. p. 138. ISBN 978-1-84449-095-0.
  12. ^ "Bill Lee – She's Gotta Have It (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) (1986, Vinyl)". Discogs. October 1986. Retrieved February 4, 2021.
  13. ^ "She's Gotta Have It - Bill Lee | Credits | AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved February 4, 2021.
  14. ^ "Bill Lee". IMDb. Retrieved February 4, 2021.
  15. ^ "Do the Right Thing [Score] - Bill Lee | Songs, Reviews, Credits | AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved February 4, 2021.
  16. ^ "Mo' Better Blues (1990) - IMDb". IMDb. Retrieved February 4, 2021.
  17. ^ "Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads (1983) - IMDb". IMDb. Retrieved February 4, 2021.
  18. ^ Spike Lee Morehouse where became man ajc.com Archived December 14, 2019, at the Wayback Machine
  19. ^ "'Standing on the Shoulders of Those Who Came Before Me'". February 2009.
  20. ^ Saad, Megan (January 3, 2014). "Spike Lee's Brother Passes Away At 55". Vibe. Retrieved May 25, 2023.
  21. ^ Kilgannon, Corey (July 25, 2008). "It's Spike's 80-Year-Old Father". The New York Times. Retrieved February 18, 2013.
  22. ^ T@NE. "T@NE". T@NE. Retrieved June 1, 2023.
  23. ^ a b "Spike Lee falls out with jazzman dad Bill Lee over mixed marriage". Jet. May 16, 1994. Archived from the original on July 15, 2014. Retrieved July 15, 2013.
  24. ^ "Spike Lee's Father Is Arrested In Heroin Case and Is Freed". The New York Times. October 26, 1991. Retrieved July 15, 2013.
  25. ^ a b Mandell, Jonathan (April 24, 1994). "A Kinder, Gentler Spike?". New York Newsday. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved June 5, 2020.

External links[edit]