“Sundance” - an essay on Jeanne Lee

We’re talking about our work at a roof-top bar in the 11th arrondissement where you can see Sacré-Coeur in the distance. The woman teases me with light humour and kindness about the emphasis of my writing; she says that she plans on returning to Senegal, the country where her father was born to find work in an organisation that makes connections between Dakar and Paris. Recently she says she attended a conference about “women in jazz.” No, no, she says laughing in response to the expression on my face, it was interesting, really.

"Jazz is a music that combines so many opposites ... You have to find that balance, then you have a guideline between freedom and discipline, between rhythm and melody, between body and spirit, between mind and instinct."

"I feel the music like a dance, I think it's an important part of the music, it has to be felt like a dance."

Jeanne Lee  

 

Few jazz singers, or singers of any genre, could capture the same emotional depth with such ease, as self-described "a jazz singer, poet/lyricist, composer/improvisor” Jeanne Lee who died aged 61 in Mexico, 2000. Compassion, tenderness, levity and freedom can be heard in her voice. More than anything else, even from her earliest recordings and performances with Ran Blake in the 1960s, Jeanne Lee sounds at peace with herself.

Recently I’ve been ruminating about how our sense of our own identities as women, even as the years pass, is shaped by how we see ourselves in relation to others, how we think about ourselves in terms of how others see us (self as performance, performance as self). I am grateful to Jeanne Lee for the way she seems to have found a way through all this, as an artist she sounds free.

None of this was by chance. Lee’s artistry emanated from her conscious exploration of the limits and potential of performance and improvisation, to give voice to her musical gift and experience as an artist and as a Black woman in the United States (and Europe). Yet in the later years of her life, Lee expressed frustration that she didn’t have so many recordings to her name (a consequence of raising children, she said) and that the multi-faceted nature of her achievement had not been recognised.

Within jazz, Eric Porter writes on his insightful essay “Jeanne Lee’s voice”  - first published in Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études critiques en improvisation, Vol 2, No 1 (2006) and then People Get Ready: The Future of Jazz is Now! (2013) - critics often encouraged a binary opposition between the jazz vocalist (woman) with the jazz musician (man/artist).

Yet as Porter notes, Lee’s work upset this binary opposition in various ways. First and perhaps most importantly, Lee challenged conventions of what a singer is via her particular brand of improvisation, her use of her voice as an “instrument.” But her innovative re-interpretation of standards and the way she positioned herself as a singer within the group are also important, I’d suggest. In one interview Lee stressed that she was not an add-on, the called-in singer, but a musician of equal importance to the others on stage. She performed alongside them.

Porter writes:

"By disrupting the close relationship between jazz singing and the feminized sphere of popular vocal music, and by bringing a level of technical virtuosity to their work, (Abbey) Lincoln and Lee challenged the idea that female vocal jazz artists, while an important element of the jazz tradition, did not quite measure up to the artistry and genius of male instrumentalists and were a secondary class of performers.

That Lee was able to disrupt this dichotomous juxtaposition of female vocalist bodies with male instrumentalist minds is evident in the critical responses to her by some European jazz writers who commended her improvisational skills. As one of them put it: “Miss Lee, as far as I know, is the first to fulfil 100 percent what most jazz singers wish for in their dreams --namely a complete disregard of the former borderline between the human voice and an improvising horn.”

Two points to make here: my aim is not to “recover” Jeanne Lee as part of a feminist project, even if that might be a worthwhile task, I am not the woman, or person to write it (and besides, those who know about jazz already hold her in high esteem, obviously). Second, to understand her significance as a Black woman and artist, I’d recommend Porter’s essay, particularly for the way it situates Lee’s work within her broader cultural and political context, while being acutely alert to what makes her art so distinctive then and now.

I particularly appreciated the way Porter detailed Lee’s own perception of her work and its importance, see, for example, how in the late 1970s she referred to herself as a “voice environmentalist,” as quoted in Porter’s essay:

"I look at myself as already an environment, the environment is there and it comes through me in sound. In turn the music is created as a total environment to the audience. I’m always trying to allow the environment to manifest itself through me [. . .] when I’m working with a musician I’m trying to deal with the sound. When I want to direct the music I create a poem and then there’s a more deliberate environmental frame and we all work within that."

This self-perception corresponded with work by her contemporaries, such as Anthony Braxton and Wadada Leo Smith, who Porter writes shared a “Black Arts Movement commitment to community-building through creative educational projects while recognizing the limitations of narrowly conceived identity politics and the necessity of creative exchanges across cultural and national boundaries.”

Seeing herself and her art as part of an “environment” reflected her desire to create work that was not hierarchical, but depended on the interpretation of the audience for its meaning in a way that echoed the Fluxes ethos, and Happenings as as well as that of Black American “AACM and multi-instrumentalist Marion Brown, on whose Afternoon of a Georgia Faun Lee performed”

Porter’s essay begins with Ntozake Shange’s evocation of a 1981 performance by Jeanne Lee at Soundscape, New York:

On 52nd Street I realized Jean [sic] Lee is clothed and fed by her voice. That’s the same street my aunts and uncles were born and black on, so 52nd and 10th means something to me – like a people who come out with what they can carry: love, sweat, blood and song. Though everything we know is wonderful and rich, we, as a people, hide, to keep it safe. Jean Lee don’t. [. . .] Aretha addresses God, Billie Holiday seduced him. Tina Turner made the devil think twice/but Jean Lee is mingling among us. [. . .] She is not afraid of all this body that moves so sweet I dare you/ and isn’t this more than you ever imagined; her body is song. [. . .] We got a woman among us who isn’t afraid of the sound of her own voice. She might lay up nights, wondering how are we staying alive ‘cause we didn’t hear what she just heard/or sing it. Well. Did I hear the congregation say Amen.
She sings.
Jean Lee/She sings

Porter's analysis hinges on the striking collaboration between Lee, Andrew Cyrille and Jimmy Lyons from 1979, “In These Last Days" from Nuba released by Black Saint Records:

Porter notes how Lee’s poetry prefaced her identity as an artist, a Black woman and a mother.

 

In these Last Days

                                                                of Total

Dis-in-te-gra-tion,

                                                                 where every day

Is a struggle

                                                                against becoming

An object in

                                                                someone else’s

                                                                                nightmare:

There is great joy

                                                                 in being

Naima’s Mother

                                                                and unassailable strength

In being

               on the Way

 

Porter writes: “The words/lyrics “these Last Days/ of Total/ Dis-in-te-gration/ where every day/ Is a struggle/ against becoming/An object in/ someone else’s/ nightmare” are improvised and repeated in different registers, across varying ranges of intervals. There is particular focus on the word “struggle,” which is elongated and distorted, ultimately becoming a scream.”

But there is also optimism to be found here, as Porter notes, in the final lines when Lee mention the “great joy” to be found in her role as mother, as well as the notion of transformation.

What strikes me about Jeanne Lee’s work in the 1960s particularly is how modern (and radical) it still sounds. The poetry she performs on Archie Shepp’s 1969 "Blasé” is astounding, her debt to Abbey Lincoln can be sensed in her delivery, but the intensity and the content of her verse have no obvious point of comparison.

Spoken-word before it existed, a revolutionary poetics with a disassembled soundtrack: one woman’s lament, a deconstructed Song of Songs, held close.

Musically, it breaks convention just as you would expect from Shepp, but the drumming in particular by Philly Joe Jones stuns for its broken, unexpected counterpoint. (Note the small error in the lyrics transcription in the video: “I gave you a loaf of sugar and you took my womb till it runs.”)

II.

“Soul Eyes”

"A soul, I'm told Can be both hot and cold/So how is one to know Which way to go?/ The soul is mirrored in the eyes/But how is one to know When the whole world is full of such lies?/So darling, watch those eyes And even more, those lies/And when you see them smile/For a long, long while Then you know you've found the one/ Who'll always, always be true I know, that it is how I found you"

From Mal Waldron: Soul Eyes (BMG, 1997)

From After Hours (Owl, 1994)

III.

In an interview Jeanne Lee recalled how she first met Ran Blake at Bard College, “I met Ran the first day I was in college, I heard this sound, we were all standing in line to get our classes, we were all freshmen, the sound was Ran Blake playing the piano in the Chapel. We’ve been friends ever since.”

Winning the Apollo Theater’s Amateur Night competition led to an album contract with RCA, The Newest Sound Around and a tour in Europe, where as the New Music USA obituary quotes Ran Blake: “She created such a sensation – they called her the heir of Billie Holiday.”

But if you listen to Lee’s 1966 recording of the standard “Night and Day”

her expressive, experimental leanings can be heard, in a way that differs strongly from the classic Billie Holiday recording of 1939. There are similarities, certainly, in the phrasing (both singers emphasise words you wouldn’t expect, for example, “are” as in “you are the one”) but the differences are marked. Whereas Holiday’s performance is all about her remarkable voice, especially in that moment it becomes fragile when she sings of her “hungry yearning” for her absent love, it remains contained and extremely controlled, her signature as an artist.

In contrast, the Jeanne Lee performance is radically exposed, as she breaks down the song into parts, greatly assisted by Ran Blake's piano accompaniment. If you listen to their approximate contemporaries – Helen Merrill in 1961 or Anita O’Day  in 1959, or Ella Fitzgerald in 1956 – you can hear how different their approach is. Whereas Merrill, O’Day, Fitzgerald keep the “swing” of the song, the original speed and verve of it, the Jeanne Lee version, which was released on Free Standards: Stockholm, 1966 is slowed down dramatically, and kept expressionistic as if she is daubing colours of paint, playing with sonic fragments. It’s all about the purity of the sound, the phrasing. (Also on the album two very surprising, if sexy/sensual, covers of Beatles’ songs: “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Ticket to Ride”).

This style of singing is relatively common today, so it’s difficult to imagine how new this would have been to the audiences of the era. That said Ran Blake’s highly expressive style of playing the piano still sounds brave decades on. Listen to this similarly wonderful version of “A Taste of Honey” from the same album:

Or “Summertime” from her RCA début with Blake, The Newest Sound Around from 1961

Notice just before 1’30” when Blake kicks into it as if it were some kind of raw honky tonk piano groove, counter to the typical approach of holding back and being “respectful” (see Mal Waldron, or Tommy Flanagan or any of the other greats in this regard) to the vocalist. You would expect that this would be obtrusive, but in fact it works perfectly with Lee’s deeply harmonious vocal style, adding some definition and perhaps encouraging her also to develop more of an edge to her delivery.

Needless to say the above Lee/Blake interpretation from the “Jazz on the Screen” footage is light years away from the Sondheim/Bernstein original from West Side Story (1961).

Found in this performance are the roots of her more experimental vocal work/interpretations. Ben Ratliff wrote in his New York Times obituary that Lee had two radically different styles and that the first was “dry, slow and breathy, influenced by Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington.” Lee, in fact, cited Abbey Lincoln as an important early influence, you can hear this particularly in her performance of “Summertime” above.

As Eric Porter writes:

"One of the striking things about the album is Lee’s engagement with Abbey Lincoln’s music. Lee’s vocal inflections resemble Lincoln’s and she builds upon Lincoln’s explorations of the instrumental qualities of the voice through improvised, non-verbal vocal lines. Lee also performs at the session material written and/or included by Lincoln on her own 1961 album Straight Ahead: Thelonious Monk’s “Blue Monk,” for which Lincoln had written lyrics; the Billie Holiday/Mal Waldron composition “Left Alone”; and the title track, with words by Lincoln and music by Waldron."

During these sessions Lee also recorded "Straight Ahead” – the title track of Lincoln’s foundational 1961 album, the song written by Lincoln, Earl Baker and Mal Waldron. Porter writes:

"Lincoln’s work on Straight Ahead represented a critical moment in her flight from the musical and ideological baggage associated with material available to jazz singers. During the late 1950s and early 1960s Lincoln made an effort to move away from romantic ballads that spoke of abusive and dysfunctional heterosexual relationships; she began performing material which described healthier relationships between men and women, provided varying degrees of social commentary, and demanded a more “instrumental” approach to singing. Moreover, Lincoln’s shift in material also spoke to her commitment to the mutual liberation of black men and women in the political context of the black freedom movement."

Jeanne Lee was explicit about her creative debt to Lincoln and respect for her work, as quoted in Porter's essay: 

"The person who left the most impression on me in terms of life-situations as well as what she was doing with her voice was Abbey Lincoln. From the credibility of her craft and her own reality and not so much as a “style.” It was like using the energy as a painting. Billie Holiday too, but she comes from another era, Billie has the same kind of thing musically, but Abbey advances that type of understanding, [. . .] Abbey is more human, it’s not just a woman who’s a victim of her role. Again speaking about Lincoln, Lee said: “this woman made it possible for me to have faith in the fact that I am a poet and I did not have to sing standards in order to be a jazz singer. I could find a way of putting my own perception into musical terms”

***

Personnel: Allan Praskin, clarinet (B2) Perry Robinson, clarinet (B2) Mark Whitecage, alto clarinet (B2) Jack Gregg, bass Steve McCall, drums Gunter Hampel, flute, piano, vibraphone, alto and bass clarinet Sam Rivers, soprano and tenor saxophone, flute Marty Cook, trombone (B2) Ensemble tracks recorded by George Klabin, Sound Ideas Studio, New York, February 1974.

No words, only a feeling
No questions, only a life
No sequence, only a being
No journey, only a dance

Here is some more from Ben Ratliff’s New York Times obituary:

"Because Ms. Lee performed in two radically different styles, her singing was difficult to categorize. One of her voices was dry, slow and breathy, influenced by Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington.

In 1961 she and a classmate from Bard College, the pianist Ran Blake, performed as a duo at the Apollo Theater's Amateur Night contest. They won, and the album they later recorded, ''The Newest Sound Around'' (later reissued on CD as ''The Legendary Duets''), has remained a cult favourite.

In jazz standards and Thelonious Monk tunes on the album, Ms. Lee and Mr. Blake subtracted swing, but added intellectual coolness, abstruse piano harmonies and vocal influences from Holiday and Washington; the record is a series of minimalist dreams. (In 1989 she and Mr. Blake recorded a duet album in the same style, ''You Stepped Out of a Cloud.'')

In her other vocal style, Ms. Lee approached words as sounds; this voice was harsh and booming, and she used her teeth, lips and tongue to wring drama out of each syllable, presaging singers like Diamanda Galas. In the mid-1960's she was a multidisciplinary artist, writing music with members of the Fluxus school like Alison Knowles and Dick Higgins, and gradually becoming more aligned with the rest of the late-1960's avant-garde in jazz."

While it is true that some of Jeanne Lee's work in the 70s particularly played with conventional song construction, I don’t recognise the “harsh and booming” quality that Ratliff refers to above as being a key element of Jeanne Lee’s work, if anything there is a lilting softness which reoccurs in various ways. See, for example, the wonderfully playful “Angel Chile” from her Conspiracy record (Earthforms Records, 1974).

Or what might be my favourite piece of music of hers, “Your Ballad” from the same album:

Where to begin with this music, with its capacity to hold on to apparent opposites and make them cohere, the simple joy and excitement that plays against deep contentment, music that is slow and leisurely and impatient at the same time: the sweetness of it all.

Added to this are the various personalities of the instruments providing the foundations for Lee’s remarkable vocal performance. The ponderous and heavy nature of the bass line and I’m not sure which part it is, most probably the alto clarinet, but it sounds like horns that suggests partial movement, but instead circles as if waiting for direction from the vocalist. Then just before two minutes in it stops to build once more; something similar occurs three minutes later. There is such beauty in this music, each time I hear it it touches my heart.

There are too certainly too echoes of the standard “Lover Man” in this song, the un-sung melody of “where can you be?“which Lee recorded with Ran Blake on her first album, in a typically personal style:

To finish, here is a live performance of Jeanne Lee from 1970, performing with her husband and musical collaborator Gunter Hampel:

(This essay is dedicated to the memory of my late mother and my sister, neither of whom listened to jazz. Jeanne Lee’s music has recently helped me in my efforts to come to terms with their absence ... and to all those seeking solace in music)

Related article: Mal Waldron ‘Left Alone’ (Mal Live 4 to 1, Philips/Japan, 1971; Left Alone ‘86, Paddle Wheel, 1986; w/ Archie Shepp, Left Alone Revisited, Enja Records, 2002) & Abbey Lincoln published 8 July, 2018

for other pieces of writing on Mal Waldron, Archie Shepp and jazz, follow the tags