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Master jazz bassist Bill Lee dies at 94


Spike Lee’s father was a prolific musician in his own right

Double-bassist and composer William “Bill” James Edwards Lee, best known for his musical scores in collaboration with his director son Spike Lee, died on Wednesday, May 24. Spike Lee announced his passing on his Instagram account, although no cause was given.

Born in Snow Hill, AL circa 1928, William James Edwards Lee III graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga, his son’s alma mater, where he was a classmate of the Rev. Martin Luther King.  He later married the former Jacquelyn Shelton and moved to the New York City borough of Brooklyn, where they raised five children, including son Shelton (“Spike”) and actress Joie.

A prolific musician in his own right, Bill Lee had an extensive discography as a sideman behind such notables as Burt Bacharach, Harry Belafonte, Bob Dylan (“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”), Duke Ellington, John Lee Hooker, Gordon Lightfoot, Simon and Garfunkel (“The Sounds of Silence”), Arlo Guthrie, Odetta, Peter, Paul and Mary (“And When I Die”) , Cat Stevens, and Aretha Franklin’s first four albums.

His popularity as sideman reached the point where he began farming out gigs he couldn’t take to another bassist, Ron Carter, who was eager for the opportunity.

Every folk singer wanted to have him because of his sense of how to shape a tune,” Carter recalled.

The growing popularity of the electric bass in popular music offended the purist sensibilities of the elder Lee, and his refusal to adapt put a strain on the family finances,  so his wife was forced to become the primary breadwinner, a situation that inspired the plot of 1994’s “Crooklyn.”

As Spike Lee began his film career, he utilized his father’s talents in providing the scores for his graduate thesis “Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads,” and the features “She’s Gotta Have It (1986),” “School Daze (1988),” “Do the Right Thing (1989),” and “Mo’ Better Blues (1990).”

After Jacquelyn Lee’s 1974 death of cancer, Bill Lee eventually entered into an interracial marriage to Susan Kaplan, resulting in a well publicized estrangement from his son, by now a celebrity. This friction likely spawned the themes examined in 1991’s “Jungle Fever,” and was aggravated by the elder Lee’s narcotic addiction. He was arrested that year for possessing $20 worth of heroin, during a police sweep in a Brooklyn playground.

The breach in their relationship paved the way for trumpeter Terence Blanchard to complete the score for “Mo’ Better Blues,” and much of Spike Lee’s following filmography.

In addition to his studio session and recording career, Bill Lee wrote several operas inspired by his family heritage in the South.

In addition to Spike and Joie Lee, Bill Lee’s children with Jacquelyn Lee include Clinique, Christopher (who passed in 2023), and David. His union with Susan Lee produced a son, alto saxophonist Arnold Lee.