Jeanne Lee was a distinguished singer and educator who chose to devote her artistic energies to the challenging demands of the jazz avant-garde, rather than more mainstream forms. She established herself as one of the handful of genuinely original and creative vocal improvisers in that sphere, and was also a composer and teacher.
She grew up in New York, and attended Bard College. Her father was a singer, but she studied modern dance initially, and also piano. She met pianist Ran Blake while at Bard, and they began to work as a duo which launched her as an improvising vocalist. They recorded an album, The Newest Sound Around, in 1961, and toured in Europe in 1963. It would be the first of many such visits for the singer, culminating in a teaching appointment at two conservatories in Belgium in 1996.
She moved to California in 1964, and married David Hazelton, an experimental sound-poet (their daughter, Naima, was named after a famous composition by John Coltrane). She moved to Europe in 1967, and began a long professional and personal association with German multi-instrumentalist, band leader and composer Gunter Hampel, whom she eventually married.
They worked together on many projects, including numerous recordings released on Hampel’s Birth label, and also on music theatre projects, dance pieces, and poetry, as well as workshops for everyone from children to professional musicians.
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.
"I thought about you" (composed by Jimmy Van Heusen with lyrics by Johnny Mercer).
Eric Barrett (tenor sax),
Jean-Jacques Avenel (bass),
John Betsh (drums),
Marciac, France. 2000.