Bill Lee Day

July 23, 1928 – May 24, 2023

A tribute to the bassist

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Bassist Bill Lee passed away on May 24, 2023, at the age of 94.

He was born on July 23, 1928, in Snow Hill, Alabama, and became best known as the father of director Spike Lee.

However, Bill Lee had a strong and lengthy career as a bassist and composer.

Lee grew up in a very musical environment (both of his parents were musicians), and he played drums, piano, and flute before settling on the bass.

Lee graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1951 and worked in jazz groups in Atlanta and Chicago before moving to New York City in 1959.

He appeared on over 250 albums throughout his career, including collaborations with pianist Billy Wallace (1957), Frank Strozier, Aretha Franklin (when she was singing jazz in 1960), John Handy, Ray Bryant, Johnny Griffin, Chris Anderson, folk singer Josh White, Harold Mabern, Clifford Jordan, Stanley Cowell, and Barry Harris.

Lee, who founded and directed the New York Bass Violin Choir (which included seven bassists), stretched beyond jazz, writing folk operas, and working with notable figures such as Odetta, Arlo Guthrie, Harry Belafonte, Simon and Garfunkel, and Bob Dylan.

He also composed the film scores for four of Spike Lee’s films: “She’s Gotta Have It,” “School Daze,” “Do The Right Thing,” and “Mo’ Better Blues.”

Bill Lee was known for his integrity, never taking up the electric bass or playing music that he did not believe in.

In the provided image, taken in 2010, Lee can be seen conducting the Natural Spiritual Orchestra (which includes harpist Brandee Younger) during his original composition “John Coltrane.” The performance celebrated Lee’s 82nd birthday.

-Scott Yanow


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