Pioneering vocalist and educator Jeanne Lee died on Tuesday, October 24 after a six month battle with cancer. Following her diagnosis and radical surgery in Europe last Spring, Jeanne was receiving advanced alternative care in a Tijuana treatment center at the advice of her doctor when she succumbed to the disease at the age of 61.
I had the pleasure of hearing Jeanne many times in the Sixties and Seventies with such stellar artists as Archie Shepp, Marion Brown, Andrew Cyrille, and her longtime collaborator Gunter Hampel, with whom she recorded a number of albums on the German vibraphonist’s Birth label. During the ‘70s, I got to know Jeanne while I was involved in the label’s distribution and found her to be a woman of great gentility and kind spirit. Her passing is a great loss for her fans, but even more so for those who knew this extraordinary woman.
Jeanne Lee was born in New York City on January 29, 1939. Her initial involvement in Jazz was with the eminent pianist-composer-educator Ran Blake, whom she met while studying dance at Bard College in 1959. Working as a duo, they recorded and toured between 1961 and 1963, with Jeanne developing her unique vocal style. Her wordless approach that utilized a variety of sounds outside the standard conventions blended with a husky, highly emotive voice that could be both acrobatic and deeply moving.
After moving to California in 1964 she worked with multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood and poet David Hazleton, whom she later married. A trip to Europe in 1967 began her relationship with Hampel.
Perfectly suited to the adventurous ‘60s avant-garde, Jeanne became a familiar figure on that iconoclastic New York scene late in the decade, contributing significantly to the vernacular for the avant-garde vocal style. In addition to the aforementioned musicians, Jeanne worked with most of the biggest names in the avant-garde, including Anthony Braxton, Lester Bowie, Cecil Taylor, Charlie Haden, Reggie Workman, Roswell Rudd and Julius Hemphill, as well as more mainstream artists like Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Chick Corea, Bennie Maupin, and Vocal Summit with Bobby McFerrin, Ursula Dudziak, Jay Clayton and Lauren Newton.
A recipient of a master’s degree from New York University, Jeanne began a long teaching stint in the Third Stream Department of the New England Conservatory of Music in 1976 alongside Ran Blake, with whom she recorded again in 1990. Composing extensively in the ‘80s, many of her works were multi-arts collaborations utilizing dance and spoken word, highlighted by her five part suite "Emergence" and a ten-act oratorio "A Prayer For Our Time."
Although she had been teaching at two music conservatories in Europe since 1996, Jeanne had no health insurance and a number of benefits have been arranged to help her family defray the enormous expenses for her medical treatment. Further information about these events will appear as we receive it.
Jeanne Lee’s passing is one more sad event amidst a recent slew of untimely and premature deaths in the Jazz community. Those who knew her will miss her greatly.
Sun Oct 29 2000 (5:56:07 PM)