Twenty years ago, I fell in love with a jazz singer. Jeanne Lee had died earlier in 2000 of cancer, but she couldn’t have been more alive to me. A hip woman I knew had given me BMG’s reissue of The Newest Sound Around, Lee’s 1962 debut album with the pianist Ran Blake. You’ve never heard anything like it, my friend promised, and I hadn’t, until I realized I’d heard that soft, warm, and inviting contralto before (don’t all infatuations begin with a sense of déjà vu?). But since I’d lost track of her name, she was “only a dream,” as Lee sings in her haunting rendition of Johnny Mercer’s “Laura.” Now the dream had a name; now she was real; now she was mine.
I was hardly alone in these feelings of possessive adoration. Lee, who would have been eighty-one this January, was the ultimate singer’s singer. And she’s still something of a secret—an artist you want everyone to know about, but also to keep for yourself. Her voice had the timbre and range of a cello and a cloud-like beauty; it enveloped you like the shawls she wore on stage. “Jeanne could say good morning and it sounded right,” the bassist William Parker, who performed with her, told me. “Like a coat with reverse lining, that was Jeanne Lee’s voice.” Her sense of time was unusually elastic, as if she lived on a planet of eternal rubato, but her singing was always buoyed by a feeling of dance—and of wonder at the fact of being alive. A poet and composer as well as an interpreter of other people’s songs, she loved words and seemed to caress as much as sing them. She carried herself with unfailing grace and swayed on stage to the slow, languorous rhythms of her voice.
Lee’s best-known record is still probably The Newest Sound Around, which, in its mélange of youthful effervescence and noir fatalism, captured the sensibility of New York bohemia as much as John Cassavetes’s Shadows or James Baldwin’s Another Country. On that album, and in the dazzling recordings the duo made in Europe in 1966 and 1967—released last year for the first time under the title The Newest Sound You Never Heard—Lee and Blake approached each other not as singer and accompanist but as highly interactive improvisers, taking apart standards like “Summertime” and “Night and Day” and rearranging them like a pair of musical Cubists. Full of whimsical, often violent contrasts in color and dynamics, Blake’s playing was an eccentric, fractured collage of twentieth-century modernism, Thelonious Monk, gospel, and film music. His spiky, unresolved style found a perfect foil in the serenity and poise of Lee’s singing and in her precise, sensuous diction. “I know of no other singers who can project the introspective, often somber mood that is generated by Jeanne’s dark-rich voice, at the same time improvising far-out vocal lines and feeling at home in the even further-out accompaniments of Ran Blake,” Gunther Schuller wrote in his liner notes to The Newest Sound Around.
The path Lee chose next, however, was even more perilous. Widely praised as an heir to Billie Holiday and Abbey Lincoln, she seemed destined to follow in their footsteps. But Lee didn’t see herself as strictly a jazz singer, or even merely as a singer. She came to think of herself as a “voice environmentalist,” and gravitated to the most adventurous musical environments, from the Fluxus movement to the free-jazz avant-garde, which recognized her not simply as a kindred spirit but as an environment in her own right. Lee fearlessly explored the continent of her own voice—vocalise, breathing, sighs, cries and whispers, giggles and laughter, even saliva—and revealed a new, enchanting, and profoundly corporeal world of sound. “Her body is song,” the playwright and poet Ntozake Shange wrote of her. “We got a woman among us who isn’t afraid of the sound of her own voice.”
In her embrace of the body, and her own body’s natural music, Lee took part in a movement in vocal art that arose in the early 1960s with the work of the mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian, the wife and muse of the Italian composer Luciano Berio, and that soon attracted singers such as Meredith Monk, Joan La Barbara, and Jay Clayton. Most were women who felt that Western classical music had barely scratched the surface of what La Barbara called “the original instrument,” and they were keen to investigate their instrument’s untapped resources, including “unmusical” noises—groans, grunts, screams, wails—that male composers had all but banished from vocal music. “We were trying to figure out what else the voice could do,” Clayton, a friend and occasional collaborator of Lee’s, told me.
Lee shared this desire but also stood apart from her peers. For all her fascination with (in her words) “what the voice is in itself,” hers was steeped in the blues vernacular, which she honored even in her wildest vocal experiments. The black musical tradition, she said, gave her “a ground to stand on and move from”; it enriched and enlivened her work. But it also exacted a toll: like the black minimalist composer Julius Eastman (born a year after her), she vanished from histories of avant-garde music, which was depicted as if it were an entirely formalist and exclusively white movement.* Today those histories are being rewritten, and Lee, like Eastman and other hidden figures of the black avant-garde, is reemerging from oblivion. She’s even fashionable: revered by younger singers, celebrated by Afro-futurists, worshipfully discussed by musicologists and black feminist scholars.
Born in 1939, Lee grew up in the Bronx, an only child. Alonzo Lee, her father, was an opera singer who practiced lieder and spirituals at home; her mother, Madeline, was an accomplished tap dancer. The Lees weren’t wealthy, but they were culturally rich, and raised their daughter with a deep sense of her heritage. Lee took piano and voice lessons, went to see Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson perform in Harlem, and attended a progressive, largely white private school based on Thoreau’s teachings where she read Shakespeare, Petrarch, and Blake. She hid her interest in jazz from her father, who considered it “low-life music.”
In 1956, she enrolled at Bard, where she majored in psychology, befriended Hannah Arendt, and helped resettle Hungarian refugees. She read French and Russian novels, and choreographed dances set to Bartók and other twentieth-century composers. One of her classmates was Ran Blake, a white student from Springfield, Massachusetts. “You sound like Art Tatum,” she said when she first heard him playing the piano. He didn’t agree, but he appreciated the compliment. “I’d never met a musician so open, so tolerant,” Blake told me at his home in Boston, and he loved her “timbre, her low tone, the way she could move up to soprano. Her voice had a gut, a majesty. She could follow me intuitively.” In the autumn of 1961 they performed at Amateur Night at the Apollo. They cut a striking profile: a nerdy, introverted white pianist and a supremely elegant black woman in conversation, making a new kind of chamber music. They won first prize, and George Avakian of RCA signed them to make a record.
The Newest Sound Around didn’t sell many copies, but it attracted the attention of Germany’s “jazz pope,” the critic and impresario Joachim-Ernst Berendt, who organized a European tour for the duo in the spring of 1963. Audiences in Germany, France, and Italy were spellbound. “They called her a new Billie Holiday, but when we came back to New York we had no work,” Blake told me. “One club owner said he’d hire her if she’d hire a different pianist, but she was so loyal.”
Her loyalty to Blake was also faithfulness to her own search for musical freedom. At the time of The Newest Sound Around, the free-jazz revolution launched by Ornette Coleman, which had emancipated improvisation from chord structures and other traditional forms, was only a few years old. The question for singers, Lee said, was “how to take advantage of the freedom offered by these innovations.” To her, the choices looked narrow: you could “scat, thus imitating the jazz instrumental sounds” or “set words to instrumental solos,” and “neither of these options allowed space for the natural rhythms or sonorities or the emotional content of words.”
Lee’s interest in this “space” led her to Berkeley, where she spent a few years after her European tour. She sang in performances by the Fluxus artists Dick Higgins and Alison Knowles, took part in happenings at the Open Theater with slideshows and nude dancers, and married the sound-poet David Hazelton, with whom she had a daughter, Naima. Berkeley was “very, very far-out,” and it freed her from “the conventional idea of music,” she recalled. “I could take music out of musicality, add space and silence.” You can hear the impact of her Berkeley experience in the recordings she made in Europe with Blake in 1966 and 1967. The dreamy, nocturnal cabaret of The Newest Sound Around is entering the Age of Aquarius, with covers of the Beatles and Dylan, and Lee is beginning to exhibit her fascination with wordplay, in an inspired setting of Gertrude Stein’s verse to Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso.”
None of this music, however, prepares you for the work that Lee began making in the late 1960s, when she discovered the power and dimensions of her own voice. She was now a widow: in 1967 Hazelton’s body was discovered in New York harbor, an apparent suicide. Not long after, Lee began a relationship with Gunter Hampel, who would become her second husband. A vibraphonist from Göttingen who’d first seen Lee on German television, Hampel was a pioneer of Europe’s free-jazz scene. Lee roamed around Europe with him for the next few years, making music in France, Holland, and Germany. On July 8, 1969, they made an improvised trio album in Paris with the multi-reed player Anthony Braxton and called it The 8th of July. Here, for the first time, Lee’s voice becomes pure sound; here she introduces her inimitable style of scatting: soulful yet abstracted, at once earthy and celestial.
A month later in Paris, Lee made the recording that led to her crowning as the queen of the “new thing”: the title track of the tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp’s album Blasé. In this slow, brooding song, set to a series of chilling ostinatos on the piano, a black woman addresses her wayward man, a militant who’s done her wrong. Shepp, the author, thought he’d written a story of the couple’s reconciliation, but Lee transformed his lyrics into a bitter, harrowing indictment—and a precocious expression of the black feminism that would soon erupt out of exasperation with the Black Power movement’s patriarchal politics. “Blasé/ain’t you daddy?” she sneers, her voice emboldened by contempt. “You/who shot your sperm into me/but never set me free.” Her cry that “all of Ethiopia awaits you/my prodigal son” is laced with mocking, accusatory irony. Equally stunning—and as calming as “Blasé” is incendiary—was her rendition, on the same album, of the spiritual “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” where her voice virtually becomes that balm, offering to make the wounded whole.
After Blasé, Lee lent her voice to some of the landmark recordings of the jazz avant-garde: Marion Brown’s pastoral tone poem Afternoon of a Georgia Faun, Carla Bley’s opera Escalator Over the Hill, and Braxton’s 1972 Town Hall concert. Whenever she sang, the music would suddenly grow larger, as if her presence imbued it with an electrifying sense of occasion. For all the liberties she took in her improvisations, she never forgot the melodic line of a song or descended into the kind of screaming that became a cliché of free-jazz vocals. Her singing—often in the form of vocalise or Sprechgesang—was as modest as it was majestic: she’s always in the music, never on top of it.
In the spring of 1974 Lee made her first album under her own name, Conspiracy, with a group of free-jazz musicians including Hampel, the reedmen Mark Whitecage and Sam Rivers, the clarinetist Perry Robinson, and the drummer Steve McCall. She wrote most of the music and coproduced the album. By then Lee was back in New York, living on Second Avenue and 12th Street. The city’s jittery energy infuses her poem “Subway Couple,” in which she describes a “very black” man “leaning his long, young self” into his “slim, tawny, silent girl/with eyes like Aretha,” while Rivers, like a train arriving in the station, nearly drowns out her stentorian recitation with his frenetic improvisation on tenor saxophone. “Subway Couple” taps into the mood of a new, defiant cultural nationalism, and Lee resembles a young Black Arts poet on the cover of Conspiracy, where she appears in contemplative close-up against a yellow background, her eyes half shut, her lips pursed, beneath a towering, Angela Davis–style Afro.
But Lee, a left-wing pacifist wary of nationalism of any kind, wasn’t drawn to gestures of rhetorical militancy: art was her revolution, not a weapon in service of the revolution. (In this she was very different from, say, Nina Simone.) “Jeanne was an African-American who was psychologically free, for whom racism was an inconvenience,” the choreographer Mickey Davidson, Lee’s friend and collaborator, told me. “She didn’t see the ugliness of life—she saw only beauty.” Conspiracy was a work of celebration: of the voice, of aesthetic and natural wonder, of fertility and motherhood. Lee was pregnant with her son Ruomi, the first of her two children with Hampel—Cavana, their daughter, was born a few years later—and the album trembles with the anticipation of birth. Its open, expansive mood is immediately set by a poem called “Sundance”:
Only a feeling
Only a light
Only a being
Only a dance
Lee recites the poem, written by her late husband David Hazelton, without accompaniment, leaving ample space between each line. After a pause, we hear a bass line, flute, soprano saxophone, and drums, and her joyful scatting in conversation with the horns; later, she returns to the poem, this time singing each syllable in a sweet, melismatic trance. Lee had a linguist’s fascination with the sonic properties of words, with the way that sounds create meaning. In one of the most inventive tracks on Conspiracy, a solo performance called “Angel Chile,” Lee’s laughter slowly turns into syllables, which eventually form the word “Naima,” her daughter’s name. The name splits apart, then forms again, in a gripping sequence of sonic effects and textures that seem to evoke the kaleidoscope of feelings that a child conjures in a mother’s imagination. The stark, mournful “Yeh Come T’be,” a kind of latter-day medieval motet, goes still further in its exploration of Lee’s voice, layering three tracks of it in an intricate harmonization of sighs, moans, hiccups, and throat sounds.
The sounds we hear on pieces like “Angel Chile” and “Yeh Come T’be” aren’t in themselves unusual, but we’re not accustomed to their being incorporated into the fabric of musical compositions. Why, then, does Conspiracy sound so uncontrived, so natural, unlike so much of the era’s vocal experimentation? The beauty and control of Lee’s voice are part of the reason: she can turn a hiccup into an infectious rhythm, and her laughter is seduction itself. But I think what makes Lee’s most extreme work so alluring, and so gentle, is the way she speaks to her audience, teaching us how to listen, inviting us to join her conspiracy. “Take a breath,” she exclaims over a gust of wind-like sounds on reeds and bass. “Let it go…don’t get scared… That sound you heard/ain’t nuthin/ but nature/an’ her children/breathin/toGETHer.” As Thulani Davis wrote of Lee’s black female novelist contemporaries, her poetry was an “ecstatic,” “body-centered” language, full of “hallucinations, magic, recipes, potions, song, fire, and flight.”
Lee was ubiquitous on the Lower East Side free-jazz scene of the 1970s, where women weren’t especially welcome except as muses or groupies, but her talent was too exceptional to be ignored. The drummer Andrew Cyrille, whose 1979 trio album Nuba featured Lee and the alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, told me, “Jeanne would not back down or back off from anything any of us did.” She performed in lofts, mentored young female singers, taught music in public schools, and performed with the pianist Cecil Taylor in a production of Adrienne Kennedy’s play A Rat’s Mass. She was one of four singers in John Cage’s Renga and Apartment Building 1776, composed for the bicentennial, and wrote an operatic song cycle of her own inspired by the Sufi poet Farid ud-din Attar’s Conference of Birds. She integrated dance and movement into her work, and at one performance covered herself in blue paint and sang in front of an enormous blue monochrome canvas. She would sometimes appear on stage with a microphone in one hand and one of her young children in her other arm: a deeply inspiring image for women on the scene.
“Jeanne lived a very clean truth,” Mickey Davidson told me. “Her existence was the living manifestation of what Ntozake [Shange] wrote about. Art was what she lived.” But you couldn’t make much of a living on art—certainly not Lee’s kind of noncommercial art—and she was barely getting by. Hampel, who was mostly with men, lived in a separate apartment a block away and was often in Europe, leaving her to raise their children as the neighborhood fell prey to drugs, prostitution, and street crime. (They eventually separated.) Her poem “In These Last Days,” which she sings to lacerating effect on Nuba, evokes a period of “total disintegration/where every day/is a struggle/against becoming/an object in/someone else’s/nightmare.”
In that song, Lee finds “great joy” and “unassailable strength” in motherhood. Ruomi, her son, remembers her as a “walking empath” who exposed him to literature and art and took him to Quaker meetings so he could learn how to become a conscientious objector in case the draft was restored. But Lee sometimes buckled under the demands of parenting and depended on a wide network of other women to pitch in—her “sister friends,” she called them. “Jeanne was a princess,” one of them told me. “She expected other people to take care of things. It wasn’t that she didn’t love her kids. But her work came first, and she assumed everyone else would pick up the slack when things fell apart.”
In financial emergencies she called upon her mother, who, in Ruomi’s recollection, “was often the difference between another challenging moment and heartbreak.” Lee’s academic admirers have celebrated her as a radical black feminist, but the life of a black woman artist in the avant-garde could feel like another kind of bondage. As the late writer and filmmaker Kathleen Collins wrote in Notes from a Black Woman’s Diary (2019), “I believe in liberation, but I do not believe it is at all the thing we think it is.” By the mid-1980s, Lee had fallen into a slump. She hadn’t made an album as a leader since Conspiracy, and nearly all of her recorded work in that decade appeared on obscure albums by her former husband. She took solace in the occasional European tour, only to find herself unable to pay her rent back home.
In her last decade, Lee experienced a new surge of creative energy after moving to Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where a younger generation of black artists and musicians had settled. She joined forces with two of her sister friends, Davidson and Shange, on a piece for the Whitney Museum, A Sense of Breath. And she reemerged as a recording artist. Returning to her roots as a jazz singer, she made a luminous duet with her old partner Ran Blake, You Stepped Out of a Cloud, in 1989. A sequence of mid- and slow-tempo standards and originals, it’s as lusciously atmospheric an album as The Newest Sound Around, but it’s a more sedate, ruminative affair, the work of two masters in middle age. Blake’s playing is spare and impressionistic, Lee’s voice now almost operatic in its voluptuousness. She performs a cappella on several tracks, notably her setting of Blake’s composition “Vanguard,” in which she sings lyrics based on “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” turning Dostoyevsky’s short story into a fable of colonial despoliation and delusion.
Lee was equally imaginative in her setting of text on Natural Affinities (1992), her second and final album as a leader. She created a collage out of excerpts from Charles Mingus’s memoir Beneath the Underdog, and sang it in a slow, stately duet with the bassist Dave Holland. In “Journey to Edaneres,” she evoked a marketplace where a bird flies over a caravan as a “dancing girl” dreams of a “city at night/alight with the glow of many lamps,” her voice forming an exquisite arabesque with the singer Amina Claudine Myers. Natural Affinities is an aesthetically more conservative work than Conspiracy—there’s no overdubbing, no hiccupping, and Lee even gives us an old-fashioned rendition of “I Thought About You.” But her voice had never sounded more beautiful or more supple, especially in the final track, “Ambrosia Mama,” a samba set to a short poem in praise of motherhood that Shange had written for their Whitney performance. It opens with an aching duet between Lee and the guitarist Jerome Harris; they’re soon joined by Lisle Atkinson on bass and Newman Baker on drums, and in the closing moments, Lee’s scatting snakes around Harris and her rhythm section, effortlessly shifting registers, hitting falsetto notes with a pillowy grace.
With Atkinson and Baker, Lee had a working band of her own for the first time. It expanded on tour to include other musicians, such as the trumpeter Lester Bowie of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett of the World Saxophone Quartet. Sometimes her sidemen took advantage of her laissez-faire attitude on stage, and Atkinson, the band’s director, had to remind them that it was Lee’s band. “Lester said that for a woman to be on the bandstand, she has to have her titties strapped on tight,” Davidson told me. “Lisle helped tighten up her bra for her. With her faith in people’s creativity, she could leave space open to a fault. She had difficulty doing forty-minute sets. She’d explore that moment as long as it could go, and just like with Cecil or Sun Ra, it could go on forever with Jeanne.”
European audiences didn’t mind those longueurs, however, and in the mid-1990s, Lee moved to Holland, after being hired to teach at the conservatory in The Hague. She found an apartment with a terrace and plenty of light, filled it with plants, and began writing a children’s book about the history of jazz, Jam!, published in 1999, a year before her death. Susanne Abbuehl, one of her students, remembers reading Gertrude Stein, Shange, and haiku in her class: “She taught us the musicality of words, the dancing and the movement of words, the unity of words, music and dance.” Singers should be guided by “occurrence and cessation,” not “time or meter”; above all, they should model their singing on nature. Abbuehl told me Lee would point to the window and tell her to “sing with the light.” She was happy to be living outside the United States, where, she said in a 1997 documentary, “the government is turning the young against the old, the men against the women, the blacks against the whites, the whites against the blacks…. If you’re an artist of any kind, you’re an object of suspicion there right now.”
In Europe, Lee forged her last great artistic partnership, with Mal Waldron, a pianist as iconoclastic and as Monk-obsessed as Blake. As a young man, Waldron had played in bands led by Mingus and Eric Dolphy; he had also accompanied two of Lee’s idols, Billie Holiday and Abbey Lincoln. After escaping to Europe in the mid-1960s, he had created one of the most hypnotic styles in post-bop pianism, based on rumbling, propulsive ostinatos. Waldron, who struck Lee as a “natural mystic,” shared her love of birds, her fascination with East Asian culture, and her sense of humor: as Ruomi remembers, “they made each other laugh like they were standup comedians.” In an interview about her work with Waldron, Lee said, “He really transcends this understanding of accompaniment. He’s not feeding you something, he’s talking.” They talked to each other brilliantly in their album After Hours (1994), performing compositions by Mingus, Ellington, and Waldron himself. As marvelous as her duets with Blake are, her chemistry with Waldron, a fellow bluesman in European exile, is more organic: they finish each other’s sentences like an old couple still in love.
Lee joined Waldron in Japan for a series of concerts commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The album that came out of those concerts, Travellin’ in Soul-Time, with the flutist Toru Tenda, was a stirring suite of Waldron compositions, some set to lyrics that drew powerfully upon the poetry of the hibakusha, the survivors. Lee summoned an extraordinary gravitas as she described the “black rain” of atomic destruction. But her most moving performance was on a song about birds, Waldron’s “The Seagulls of Kristiansund.” “They know from the past,” she sings in her low, rich voice, “a life cannot last/so they live/for today/for tomorrow/they may not/be able/to dive/from the sky.” Over Waldron’s dark, rippling chords, she cries, wails, and ululates.
It was one of her last flights on record: Lee had recently been diagnosed with cancer; five years later she would be dead. She never complained of her illness. “She was losing weight, but she was laughing and singing her can off,” according to Cyrille. “The music kept her alive. She loved the music, and the music loved her.” In an early poem, Lee wrote, “the miracle is/that the layers/continue to be stripped away/each time/uncovering a center/more brilliant/and more revealing/than the one/before.” The poem is addressed to a lover, but it’s a perfect description of the miracle that was Jeanne Lee’s voice.