“We’ve got a woman among us who’s not afraid of the sound of her own voice,” poet and playwright Ntozake Shange wrote of vocalist and composer Jeanne Lee, in a 1981 review for the Village Voice. Shange had just seen Lee perform at New York City’s Soundscape, and while she would have, by this time, been witness to many evolutions in the sound of jazz at large—from free improvisation to funk fusion— no one had ever sounded quite like Jeanne Lee. Shange’s experience speaks to an essential throughline in Lee’s work: her persistent, urgent seeking of new sounds and artistic practices, in pursuit of channelling a more encompassing and unmediated expression of feeling through her voice. From her start singing standards, to her Fluxus and free jazz collaborations, and her signature poetic interpolations, Lee grounded herself in tradition, then pushed its boundaries to access a sound that was unlike anyone else’s. As a Black woman getting her start in 1960s America, working in a largely male field, and a rigorously innovative artist navigating a commercial music industry, Jeanne Lee, along with other artists I’ll cover in this series, had every reason to both challenge and circumvent conventions that did not serve her, in all areas of her life, engaging in what scholar Saidiya Hartman identifies as a “radical experiment in thought and imagination enacted in everyday practice.” Lee’s multifaceted creative practice and bold defiances of expectation in her work can be seen as deriving from a similar spirit of liberatory envisioning.
“Jeanne Lee leads the words in her dancing way over the reed-section,” observed Lee’s husband and frequent musical collaborator, the multi-instrumentalist Gunter Hampel, in the liner notes for their 1978 album All Is Real. Hampel’s brief aside captures Lee in her element as a polymath artist who drew on her background in dance, as well as on her interest in poetry, to inform and enliven her music. Vocalist and composer Elaine Michener, who similarly incorporates movement and performance art in her work, and who studied and performed Lee’s music for her 2019 Jeanne Lee Project, told me of being drawn to this dimensional, multidisciplinary aspect of Lee’s approach, relating to Lee’s “deep interest in an embodied sound for vocal production and the role of movement within the creation of sound.” In addition to composing and performing, Lee also worked as an educator, wrote a jazz history for young readers called Jam!, and created Earthforms Records to release independently her album Conspiracy. Her multifaceted approach presages that of a wide variety of contemporary musicians working both outside of, and with reference to jazz. Along with her direct influence on Elaine Michener’s work, there are echoes of Lee’s approach in the processes of artists like Lucrecia Dalt, Standing on the Corner, Moor Mother, and Solange, who tend to cross genres and engage a variety of mediums—from film to poetry to performance and visual art—to fully realize their projects.
On her first release, 1961’s The Newest Sound Around, an album of jazz standards, spirituals, and pop songs performed in duo with pianist Ran Blake, Lee deeply plumbs familiar material to offer singular renditions that prefigure her later breaks with convention. Much of the album is contemplative and shaded with melancholy, intimate and slowly unfurled. Brighter moments are often curiously punctuated, catching the ear and upending expectations. Occasionally, as on an arresting version of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” Blake’s piano accompaniment falls away, leaving Lee to sing acapella in her distinctive low register. Lee is a skilled interpreter, finding what resonates in her source material and leaving the rest aside. She seems to close-read standards like tarot, interpolating the legacy of countless previous versions—inflections and well-worn lyrical thrusts long embedded in these songs—to uncover new meanings, with fresh perspective and personal urgency.
Moving beyond standards, and in search of new, freer modes of vocal improvisation, Lee began, later in the 1960s, to draw on techniques from Fluxus sound poetry, basing her improvisations on a single word or phrase, and manipulating the syllabic sonorities of her source text. On “Malipiero’s Midnight Theater” from saxophonist Marion Brown’s 1969 album In Sommerhausen, Lee unspools the words “I saw you do that,” reiterating then breaking down the line, in a series of lilting whispers, placid then agitated declarations, and halting repetitions of a single isolated syllable, all gradually building to be a cathartic shout. Here sound sloughs from signification, and words become malleable and more expansive. “The word is your 32 bars,” Lee explained, speaking to the Village Voice in 1979. “You state your word and then you start to improvise according to your knowledge, your craft, your feeling, to make emotional-musical sense.”
Jeanne Lee’s sound derived not simply from breaks with tradition, but from returning to it with a renewed understanding, melding her roots in the jazz canon and her cross genre studies, further crystallizing her vision. Her work on Archie Shepp’s 1969 album Blasé is a microcosm of this versatility. After opening with “My Angel,” an infectious blues, inflected with Lee’s signature syllabic vocal improvisations, she leads the band, on the title track, in a strikingly direct, spoken-word denunciation of male ego, which acts as its own kind of blues. Lee then slips seamlessly into the serene spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead,” and finally a faithful rendition of the standard “Sophisticated Lady.” Innovative approaches to traditional material continued to inform Lee’s music throughout her career, surfacing in her 1990s collaborations with pianist Mal Waldron, and on her 1992 album Natural Affinities.
“No words, only a feeling. No question, only a light. No sequence, only a being. No journey, only a dance.” This recitation opens Lee’s 1971 album Conspiracy, a fitting introduction for an album that is a high point in her pursuit of emotional-musical sense. On Conspiracy, in addition to sound poetry improvisations, Lee adopts full-length poems as her primary lyrical text. Crucially, and to great effect, building pieces around poems allowed her to break free of conventional song and lyric structures, facilitating greater access to generative abstraction and to detailed narrative scene-setting, which a typical verse-chorus structure could never accommodate. “I’m a poet, so image is very important to me,” Lee said in the 1997 documentary A Portrait of Mal Waldron. “Each song becomes a world, and you try and flesh out that world in sound, so the audience shares the world with you.”
“Your Ballad,” on which Lee dispenses with language altogether in favor of a wordless melody, is a lush and vibrant centerpiece, and a reminder that for all her experimentation and breaks from the norm, her work is ultimately accessible to new listeners, and warmly welcoming. On “Angel Chile,” she makes a sound poem of her daughter’s name, Naima, rendering the word in soft laughter and contemplative sighs. Lee is committed to inhabiting over describing, her voice mimetic of her subject—in this case motherhood and the stillness of a quiet domestic scene—her lyric only one of the many sonic elements she uses to convey meaning. On “Subway Couple,” while a frenetic instrumental accompaniment conjures the busy rush of city surroundings, Lee reflects on youth and romance, imagining the interiority of two lovers seen on a train. In a similar narrative mode, “Jamaica” is a meditation on the simple, sensory pleasure of cooking dasheen. Using her voice to conjure a soundscape, rendering in rapid clicks and hissing exhalations the crack and sizzle of evaporating water and popping hot oil that, to her ear, is “a many voiced chorus of liquid percussion ending in an exquisite diminuendo,” Lee captures, with her characteristic attention to detail, the kind of minute beauty to be found in the mundane.Jeanne Lee “might lay up nights, wondering how are we staying alive,” Ntozake Shange considered in her 1981 Village Voice review, “‘cause we didn’t hear what she just heard, or sing it.” Lee’s urgent pursuit of transmuting feeling into sound was a palpable force, singing nothing less than a source of vitality, and a means of moving about the world with an eye toward making sense of it in song. “The miracle is,” Lee recites on Conspiracy, in a poem that speaks indirectly to the dynamics of her own emotional-musical seeking, “that the layers continue to be stripped away, each time uncovering a center more brilliant, and more revealing, than the one before. Amazing that this should be the way…”
Vanguard Voices is a series of profiles of jazz artists from the 1960s and ’70s.