Jeanne Lee (January 29, 1939 – October 25, 2000) was an American jazz singer, poet and composer. Best known for a wide range of vocal styles she mastered, Lee collaborated with numerous distinguished composers and performers who included Gunter Hampel, Ran Blake, Carla Bley, Anthony Braxton, Marion Brown, Archie Shepp, Mal Waldron, and many others.
Jeanne Lee was born in New York City. Her father S. Alonzo Lee was a concert and church singer whose work influenced her at an early age. She was educated at the Walden School (a private school), and subsequently at Bard College, where she studied child psychology, literature and dance. During her time at Bard she created choreography for pieces by various classical and jazz composers, ranging from Johann Sebastian Bach to Arnold Schoenberg. In 1961 she graduated from Bard College with a B.A. degree. That year she performed as a duo at the Apollo Theater's Amateur Night contest with pianist Ran Blake, a fellow Bard alumnus, and after winning made her first record, The Newest Sound Around. The album gained considerable popularity in Europe, where Lee and Blake toured in 1963, but went unnoticed in the US. At this point, Lee's major influence was Abbey Lincoln.
During the mid-1960s Lee was exploring sound poetry, happenings, Fluxus-influenced art, and other multidisciplinary approaches to art. She was briefly married to sound poet David Hazelton, and composed music for the sound poetry by poets such as Dick Higgins and Alison Knowles, becoming active in the California art scene of the time. In the late 1960s she returned to the jazz scene and started performing and recording, quickly establishing herself as one of the most distinctively independent and creative artists in the field. Already a few years after her return she had a major role in Carla Bley's magnum opus, Escalator over the Hill (1971), and recorded albums with eminent musicians including Archie Shepp and Marion Brown. In 1967, while in Europe, Lee began a long association with vibraphonist and composer Gunter Hampel, whom she eventually married. They had a son, Ruomi Lee-Hampel, and a daughter, Cavana Lee-Hampel.
In 1976 she represented the African-American spiritual musical tradition in John Cage's Apartment House 1776, which was composed for the U.S. Bicentennial. The experience inspired Lee to devote more attention to her composing, and create extended works. The immediate result was Prayer for Our Time, a jazz oratorio.
Lee continued to perform and make recordings until her death in 2000, recording for labels such as Birth, BYG Actuel, JCOA, ECM, Black Saint/Soul Note, OWL and Horo. She sang on a large number of albums by Gunter Hampel. In her late years, she ran the Jeanne Lee Ensemble, which performed a fusion of poetry, music and dance, and collaborated and toured with pianist Mal Waldron.
Lee was also active as educator. She received a MA in Education from New York University in 1972 and taught at various institutions both in the US and in Europe. She published a number of short features on music for Amsterdam News and various educational writings, including a textbook on the history of jazz music for grades four through seven.
Solo albums and records by small ensembles
- The Newest Sound Around (1962; with Ran Blake)
- Spirits (1972; with Gunter Hampel and Perry Robinson)
- Familie (1972; with Gunter Hampel and Anthony Braxton)
- Town Hall 1972 (Trio, 1972) with Anthony Braxton
- Conspiracy (1974; first solo record, with Gunter Hampel, Sam Rivers, Jack Gregg, and others)
- Oasis (1978; with Gunter Hampel)
- Nuba (1979; with Andrew Cyrille and Jimmy Lyons)
- Freedom of the Universe (1979; with Gunter Hampel)
- Don't Freeze Yourself to Death Over There in Those Mountains (1984; with Denis Charles)
- You Stepped Out of a Cloud (1989; with Ran Blake)
- Natural Affinities (1992; second solo record, with Dave Holland, Gunter Hampel, Amina Claudine Myers, and others)
- Here and Now (1993; with David Eyges)
- After Hours (1994; with Mal Waldron)
- Travellin' In Soul-Time (1995; with Mal Waldron and Toru Tenda)
- White Road Black Rain (1995; with Mal Waldron and Toru Tenda)
- Duo (1996; with Gunter Hampel)
- Marion Brown – In Sommerhausen (1969)
- Archie Shepp – Blase (1969)
- Gunter Hampel – People Symphony (1970)
- Marion Brown – Afternoon of a Georgia Faun (ECM, 1970)
- Carla Bley – Escalator over the Hill (1971)
- Vocal Summit – Sorrow is not Forever – Love Is (1972)
- Enrico Rava – Pupa o Crisalide (1973)
- Enrico Rava – Quotation Marks (1973)
- Andrew Cyrille – Celebration (1975)
- Marcello Melis – Free To Dance (1978)
- Bob Moses – Home in Motion (Ra-Kalam Records, 2012, recorded 1979)
- Gunter Hampel Big Band Vol. 1 – Cavana (1981)
- Gunter Hampel Big Band Vol. 2 – Generator (1981)
- Bob Moses – When Elephants Dream of Music (1982)
- Archie Shepp – African Moods (1984)
- Bob Moses – Wheels of Colored Light (1992)
- Jane Bunnett – The Water is Wide (1993)
- Mal Waldron – Soul Eyes (1997)
- In These Last Days, poem/composition (1973)
- Prayer for Our Time, jazz oratorio (1976)
- La Conference des oiseaux, jazz opera
- Emergence, five-part suite
- Porter, Eric (2006). "Jeanne Lee's Voice". Critical Studies in Improvisation. 2 (1): 1–14.
- Ben Ratliff, "Jeanne Lee, 61, Jazz Singer Who Embraced Avant-Garde" (obituary), New York Times, October 31, 2000.
- Porter 2006, p. 2.
- Porter 2006, pp. 7–8.
- Porter 2006, p. 3.
- Music Box notice
- Jeanne Lee at Allmusic
- Discography of Jeanne Lee recordings
- Jeanne Lee discography at Discogs
- Jeanne Lee informal biography (with a photo)
- Jeanne Lee obituary (with a photo)
- "Jeanne Lee - Leading Vocal Improviser on the Free Jazz Scene", The Scotsman, December 9, 2000. Reprinted in The Last Post, JazzHouse.
- Tribute, with Jeanne Lee poems, photograph and discography - Margaret Davis website.