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Jeanne Lee: 1939-2000
Jeanne Lee
Singer, improviser, composer, educator

Born: January 29, 1939 in New York City, New York
Died: October 24, 2000 in Tijuana, Mexico



Leading Vocal Improviser on the Free Jazz Scene

Copyright © 2000 

The Scotsman, 2000


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.

Lee was a fine singer of conventional lyrics with an expressive, slightly husky voice and a wide vocal range. She also evolved her own distinctive version of a more abstract musical vocabulary made up of wordless vocalised sounds which moved away from standard pitches, but retained a precise and controlled articulation.

In addition to her work with Hempel, she recorded with a number of the leading figures on the improvised music scene in the late 1960s and 1970s, including pianist and composer Carla Bley (on Escalator Over The Hill), saxophonists Archie Shepp (Blase), Marion Brown (Afternoon of A Georgia Faun) and Anthony Braxton, drummers Sunny Murray and Andrew Cyrille (on Nuba, with saxophonist Jimmy Lyons), and trumpeter Enrico Rava.

She began to concentrate more on her own compositions in the 1980s, which included large-scale works like Emergence, a five-part suite, and A Prayer for Our Time, an oratorio, while others incorporated dance elements. She also recorded again with both Archie Shepp and Ran Blake, as well as working with bassist Peter Kowald and with the Reggie Workman Ensemble (on Images), and the group Vocal Summit (on Sorrow Is Not Forever -- Love Is), alongside Bobby McFerrin. She recorded a set of standards with pianist Mal Waldron in 1994, After Hours, which underlined her prowess in a more conventional vein than was customary for her.

In addition to the artists already cited, Lee worked with many other luminaries of the free jazz and improvised music scene on both sides of the Atlantic. They included Lester Bowie, Dave Burrell, Don Byron, Daniel Carter, Chick Corea, Marilyn Crispell, Danny Davis, Malachi Favors, Charlie Haden, Julius Hemphill, Leroy Jenkins, Sheila Jordan, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Benny Maupin, Lawrence ‘Butch Morris’, Zeena Parkins, Dewey Redman and Roswell Rudd, and European musicans like Derek Bailey, Han Bennink, Peter Brotzmann, Evan Parker, and John McLaughlin.

She was diagnosed as suffering from cancer last year, and a campaign had been launched to help raise funds to cover her treatment at the specialist facility in Tijuana she was attending at the time of her death. She is survived by her husband, Gunter Hampel; their daughter, Cavana Lee-Hampel, and son, Ruomi Lee Hampel; their grandson, Beleil, and her daughter, Naima Lee-Hazelton.

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Donations in Memorium to Jeanne Lee

by Children of Jeanne Lee
Copyright © 2000 Children of Jeanne Lee

We would like to express our gratitude for the outpouring of support on behalf of our mother, Jeanne Lee. The cards, letters, e-mails and other examples of personal support touched her deeply. It is especially comforting for us to know the extent to which her gifts and presence were felt by each person who reached out to her during this illness. She past away October 25th and was cremated in a private ceremony. There are two public memorials in New York on November 5th and 19th for those who would like to attend.

Flowers can be sent to St. Peter's Church for the November 19th memorial. We are continuing to accept donations for the medical bills and expenses she was unable to pay during her illness. Those can be sent to: Naima Hazelton, 1661 Rodney Drive, Los Angles, CA 90027. Inquiries about her bio, pictures, music, books, and compostions can be forwarded to the same address or sent to

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With 1 reader comment, posted November 8, 2000