Bill Lee, bassist and composer who scored son Spike Lee’s movies, dies at 94

Bill Lee, a bassist and composer who scored the early movies of his son Spike Lee, wrote folk-jazz operas that channeled the voices of his enslaved ancestors, and carried out with musicians together with Harry Belafonte, Bob Dylan, Duke Ellington and Aretha Franklin, died May 24 at his dwelling in Brooklyn. He was 94.

His demise was introduced in an Instagram post by Spike Lee. Additional particulars weren’t instantly accessible.

Mr. Lee was an acclaimed sideman and session participant with a wealthy acoustic bass sound. His delicate method and versatility — he may very well be mild or intense, relying on the music — made him a favourite of producers together with John Hammond, the folks impresario who introduced Dylan and Franklin to Columbia Records.

“Every folk singer wanted to have him because of his sense of how to shape a tune,” mentioned jazz bassist Ron Carter, a frequent collaborator.

“He found a way to make the bass do what he wanted to do. He didn’t sound like most bass players at that time: His sound was not aggressive, it wasn’t fighting to be heard. It was a sound that gravitated to the listener’s ear. He was,” Carter continued, “a wonderful accompanist.”

When Dylan recorded the 1965 folks music “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” he was backed within the studio solely by Mr. Lee, whose wistful bass line accompanied the singer’s guitar and harmonica.

Mr. Lee additionally carried out with stars together with Odetta, Arlo Guthrie, John Lee Hooker, Billie Holiday, Gordon Lightfoot, Simon and Garfunkel, and Josh White. He labored with premier jazz musicians, together with pianist Ray Bryant and saxophonists Gene Ammons, Johnny Griffin and Clifford Jordan. And he established himself as a well-regarded composer, writing songs (recorded by bandleader Max Roach) and operas (together with “The Depot” and “Little Johnny”) that he performed along with his personal teams.

“His music has the complex harmonies of bebop and hard bop,” New York Times journalist Corey Kilgannon wrote in 2008, “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. He talks the same way.”

For Mr. Lee, music was a household affair. He had grown up taking part in the drums in a band along with his dad and mom — his mom was a classically educated pianist, his father a cornet participant and bandmaster — and six siblings. Two sisters and a brother joined him in a jazz-folk group, the Descendants of Mike and Phoebe, named in honor of their enslaved ancestors. Later in life, he led a bunch known as the Family Tree Singers, which included his second spouse, Susan Lee, and their son, Arnold, an alto saxophonist.

When Spike Lee, his oldest son, started making pupil movies at New York University, he enlisted Mr. Lee to put in writing the scores. Mr. Lee scored Spike’s thesis movie, “Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads” (1983), and labored with more and more bigger ensembles whereas writing the music for the director’s first theatrical releases, together with “She’s Gotta Have It” (1986), “School Daze” (1988) and “Do the Right Thing” (1989), which used a string orchestra and jazz ensemble led by saxophonist Branford Marsalis.

For Spike Lee’s movie “Mo’ Better Blues” (1990), a couple of trumpeter (Denzel Washington) making an attempt to juggle his love life and profession, Bill Lee marshaled an orchestra of some 90 musicians, by his rely. “The music is sensuous big-city jazz from around midnight, swirling through cigarette smoke and perfume and the musty smell of a saloon,” wrote movie critic Roger Ebert.

But he by no means scored his son’s motion pictures once more, with Spike turning to jazz musician and composer Terence Blanchard for many of his later movies.

“Working with Spike was an interlude,” mentioned Mr. Lee, who added that he had by no means been all in favour of movie and needed to get again to his jazz roots. He additionally mentioned that he and his son had a falling-out, stemming partially from Mr. Lee’s second marriage and a mortgage request, which Spike turned down, after Mr. Lee was arrested in 1991 for heroin possession.

The drug case was dismissed, in keeping with an account in Newsday, however Mr. Lee described the episode as a turning level.

“I’m glad I was arrested. It woke me up,” he mentioned, including that “dope was not part of my life until I was 40 years old.”

In interviews, Spike Lee downplayed the rift, praising his father’s achievements as a musician and composer whereas additionally lamenting that Mr. Lee was “a terrible businessman” who had struggled to finance his operas.

“My father has great talent,” he instructed Rolling Stone in 1991, “but I don’t think we’re ever going to see the day where he’s going to get the kind of recognition he deserves. In a way, maybe that’s why I’ve been able to do what I’ve done — maybe that’s why I’ve gotten what I’ve got — because of what was denied him.”

William James Edwards Lee — some sources add a “III” at the top of his title — was born in rural Snow Hill, Ala., on July 23, 1928. While finding out music at Morehouse College, a traditionally Black college in Atlanta, he found the bebop recordings of Charlie Parker and determined to take up the bass.

“He just demanded that I play,” Mr. Lee instructed the Boston Globe in 1992, recalling the ability of Parker’s music. “Everything he did said, ‘Pick up an instrument and let’s go.’ There was no way I could fight that.”

After graduating in 1951, Mr. Lee married Jacquelyn Shelton, who grew to become a instructor. They lived in Chicago earlier than transferring to New York in 1959, and settled at a Brooklyn brownstone throughout from Fort Greene Park. Mr. Lee remained there for many years, composing at an upright piano within the basement and, extra lately, drawing noise complaints from neighbors who didn’t take care of the late-night jam classes he hosted with buddies.

His spouse died of most cancers in 1976. Mr. Lee later married Susan Kaplan. She survives him, together with their son, Arnold; Spike and three different youngsters from Mr. Lee’s first marriage, David, Joie and Cinque; a brother; and two grandchildren. Another son from his first marriage, Christopher, died in 2013.

Mr. Lee organized music for “A Hand Is on the Gate,” a night of Black poetry and music that opened on Broadway in 1966 with a forged that included Roscoe Lee Browne, James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson.

He was additionally the founding director of the New York Bass Violin Choir, which featured what Times jazz critic John S. Wilson considered “seven of the best bass violinists in New York,” together with Carter and Mr. Lee himself. The ensemble launched a self-titled 1980 album for Strata-East Records and carried out parts of Mr. Lee’s operas, which he began writing in earnest after a 1965 journey dwelling to Snow Hill.

“As I walked through the community, I felt the flow of land and earth that I walked surge up into me, and I knew my ancestral stream was intact,” Mr. Lee recalled within the Globe interview. “I started writing about Snow Hill and the stories my grandfather and other people used to tell me. Then I went to Newport,” a summer season dwelling for the folks and jazz scenes, “and saw the old blues singers, gospel church singers, and I realized that I’d never valued it as much as I should have. I said, ‘Oh, I have this. This is me.’ ”

“I don’t like to call on the ancestors too much,” he added. “I don’t like to use up the Lord’s time, but if I need the ancestors, I call and they are there.”

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