Bill Lee, Jazz Musician and Father of Spike Lee, Dies at 94
Bill Lee, the jazz composer and bassist who played with Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin before scoring the classic first four films of his son, Spike Lee, died at his Brooklyn home this morning (May 24), The New York Times reports, citing the younger Lee. Bill Lee’s cause of death was not provided. He was 94 years old.
Lee began his career as a double bassist in Atlanta and Chicago. He moved to New York in 1959, often performing in Greenwich Village and reciting his own poetry between songs. His sterling repertoire included session work for Duke Ellington, Simon and Garfunkel, Harry Belafonte, Judy Collins, and Peter, Paul and Mary. He worked as a composer with Max Roach on several of the drummer’s great records, particularly in the late 1950s. In 1965, he played bass on Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”
As jazz and rock began to meld into jazz-fusion in the 1970s, Lee occasionally lost work when he refused to swap his upright bass for an electric model. He was so devoted to his acoustic instrument that he once told a reporter for The Boston Globe, “I could never live with myself,” were he to make the switch.
In 1986, as his son embarked on a now-legendary film career, the elder Lee penned an evocative, character-led theme for debut feature She’s Gotta Have It. The film was a success, and Bill Lee went on to score his son’s next three films: School Daze, Do the Right Thing, and the jazz-scene classic Mo’ Better Blues.
In the early 1990s, Lee and his son had a falling out over finances and family matters that put an end to their artistic collaboration. Spike Lee’s subsequent films have been scored by jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard.
Bill Lee was an avid player late into his life, hosting hours-long jam sessions at his apartment in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. In 2013, The New York Times published an article about the many noise complaints Lee’s neighbors filed as a result of his lively rehearsals featuring drums, bass, trumpet, saxophone, and piano. Lee told The Times that, for the preceding 40 years, “it was never an issue.” “This is a professional house with professional musicians living here,” Lee’s wife, Susan, said at the time. “If it bothers you, maybe this is not the place for you.”