In Memoriam: Bill Lee
Jazz bassist Bill Lee has passed away at the age of 94. The news was confirmed by his son, film director Spike Lee.
Lee was born in Snow Hill, Alabama in 1928 to a musical family. He attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia where he began to build his career as a double bassist. After some time in Chicago, he made the move to New York in 1959 and found a musical home between the burgeoning Greenwich Village folk scene and the jazz scene. As such, the list of artists on his résumé is quite varied: Duke Ellington, Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, Harry Belafonte, Gordon Lightfoot, Aretha Franklin, Simon and Garfunkel, Odetta, John Lee Hooker, and many more.
It was also during this time that Lee founded and directed the New York Bass Violin Choir, which featured seven renowned double bassists: Lisle Atkinson, Ron Carter, Richard Davis, Michael Fleming, Milt Hinton, Sam Jones, and Lee himself.
Lee was devoted to the double bass, and as the electric bass became the more dominant instrument in popular music, his work dried up. In a 1992 interview with the Boston Globe, he said he couldn’t make the switch. “Some things you just can’t live with,” he said. “Just thinking about doing it, my gut reaction hit me so hard in the stomach. I knew I could never live with myself.”
His career had a resurgence in the ’80s as he collaborated with his son, Spike, to create the soundtracks to his films She’s Gotta Have It (1986), School Daze (1988), Do the Right Thing (1989) and Mo’ Better Blues (1990). The father and son had a falling out in the early ’90s, leaving Spike to use Terence Blanchard going forward.
Bill Lee continued playing bass into the end of his life, holding jam sessions at his home in Brooklyn.
Our thoughts are with the family and friends of Bill Lee.