Bill Leethe jazz composer and bassist playing Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin before scoring the classic first four films of his son Spike Lee, died at his home in Brooklyn this morning (May 24), The New York Times reports, citing the younger Lee. Bill Lee’s cause of death was not given. He is 94 years old.
Lee began his career as a double bassist in Atlanta and Chicago. He moved to New York in 1959, performing regularly in Greenwich Village and reciting his own poetry between songs. His great repertoire includes 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 many of the drummer’s famous records, especially in the late 1950s. In 1965, he playing bass in Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”
As jazz and rock began to blend into jazz-fusion in the 1970s, Lee sometimes lost his job when he refused to trade in his upright bass for an electric model. He is so devoted to his acoustic instrument that he once told a reporter The Boston Globe“I can never live with myself,” if he makes the switch.
In 1986, as his son embarked on a now-legendary film career, the elder Lee wrote an inspiring, character-driven theme for the debut feature. He must have. The film was a success, and Bill Lee went on to score his son’s next three films: School Daze, Do the Right Thingand the jazz-scene classics Mo’ Better Blues.
In the early 1990s, Lee and his son had a dispute over finances and family matters that ended their artistic collaboration. Spike Lee’s subsequent films were scored by jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard.
Bill Lee was an avid player late in life, hosting hours of jam sessions in his apartment in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. In 2013, The New York Times published an article about the many noise complaints filed by Lee’s neighbors due to his spirited rehearsals with drums, bass, trumpet, saxophone, and piano. Lee said The Times that, in the last 40 years, “it was not an issue at all.” “This is a professional house with professional musicians living here,” Lee’s wife, Susan, said at the time. “If it bothers you, maybe this isn’t the place for you.”