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Jeanne Lee combines acrobatic vocal maneuvers with a deeply moving sound and quality that allows her to alternate between soaring, upper register flights and piercing, emotive interpretations. She's extremely precise and flexible, and moves from a song or solo's top end to its middle and bottom accompanying an instrument with a stunning ease. Though many critics have cited Lee as creating free jazz's most innovative vocal approach, she's done very little recording, almost none of it as a leader, and even less on American labels. She's best-known for her many sessions with Gunther Hampel. Lee studied dance rather than music at Bard College, but while a student there, she met Ran Blake. They formed a duo, and she did her first recordings with him, which excited many critics. They toured Europe in 1963. Lee moved to California in 1964 and worked with Ian Underwood and sound poet David Hazelton, whom she later married. She and Hampel established their musical relationship while Lee was in Europe in 1967, going on to record over 20 albums together. Lee also recorded with Archie Shepp, Sunny Murray, and Hampel in the late '60s, and with Marion Brown, Anthony Braxton, Enrico Rava, and Andrew Cyrille in the '70s, while also working with Cecil Taylor. She began composing extensively in the '80s and began concentrating on performing her original material, which frequently included poetic and dance components. Most of her recordings have either been done for European labels or small independents. After living in New York in the mid-'90s, Lee taught at two music conservatories in Europe for several years. In 2000, Lee faced colon cancer without medical insurance. Some months after surgery, creative music lost a great voice. Benefit concerts (to help the family with expenses) were held by a number of jazz musicians, including Joseph Jarman, Gunter Hampel, Rashied Ali, Hamiet Bluiett, Abbey Lincoln, and many more.
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 which included Gunter Hampel, Ran Blake, Carla Bley, Anthony Braxton, Marion Brown, 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 Wolver School (a private school), and subsequently at Bard College, where she studied literature, psychology 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, and later that year made her first record, The Newest Sound Around, with pianist Ran Blake, a fellow Bard alumnus. 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 that included Archie Shepp and Marion Brown. In 1967, while in Europe, she began a long association with vibraphonist and composer Gunter Hampel, whom Lee 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, Lee 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 the 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.
Lee died from cancer in 2000 in Tijuana, Mexico. She was survived by her husband and children.