FROM DIZZY GILLESPIE TO ARETHA FRANKLIN, JOHN LEE IS A SOUTH ORANGE JAZZ ALL-STAR By Donny Levit
The bass player and Grammy-winning producer knows how to play it local
Let’s take a moment to revisit Thursday, February 27, 2020. John Lee is onstage at the Cemal Resit Rey Concert Hall in Istanbul, Turkey, playing electric bass during a set with the Dizzy Gillespie Afro-Latin Experience. The sextet is chock full of direct descendants of the beloved trumpet master known for his puffed-out cheeks, curiously bent horn, mischievous sense of humor, and his brilliant contribution as a progenitor of the bebop jazz movement.
As it wraps up its performance that night with Gillespie’s classic “Night in Tunisia,” the band is unaware that this will be the members' last time onstage together for 16 months. “I didn’t know that was going to be my last plane flight for a while,” says Lee. For a musician who has visited 96 countries during his life, that’s no small statement.
Fourteen months later, Lee was able to take his first plane flight since that live set in Istanbul. This time, he was joined by his wife, Patrice Lee, as the vaccinated couple jetted down to Florida to visit his daughters, whom they had not seen since the pandemic began. And there’s more good news: not only will the band be returning to the live stage; they are readying to do so in John Lee’s adopted town of South Orange.
On Saturday, June 19, the Dizzy Gillespie Afro-Latin Experience will be performing at the South Orange Performing Arts Center. Audiences are going to be spoiled by a music set of Dizzy Gillespie’s groundbreaking fusion of Cuban, African, Argentinian, Brazilian, and Caribbean rhythms performed by the critically-acclaimed jazz ensemble. And this will be the first time they’ll play together since that night in Istanbul before the pandemic silenced live music across the globe.
Born John Birks Gillespie in 1917, the nickname “Dizzy” fit the trumpeter’s vibrant personality, innovative approach to his instrument, and his well-known scat singing. By the 1940s, Gillespie was a towering figure of the bebop jazz movement, and collaborated and led bands with the likes of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Billy Eckstine. He’d later expand his playing and composition to other genres, including Afro-Cuban jazz. He led the United Nations Orchestra in the 1980s. And John Lee would later join that orchestra.
“[Dizzy] had a profound wisdom about him which is just incredible,” recalls Lee, who played bass for a decade in different band incarnations with Gillespie until the bandleader’s death in 1993. “He had a joie de vivre and I always tell people that it was a party on stage. And he didn’t just play his own compositions. He had a great variety in the selection of material. We never did just a whole show of just bebop. There’d be swing, bossa nova, some samba, some funky stuff, and he’d sing a few songs. That was always the great pull for me – he played so many different things.”
Although Lee wasn’t born into a musical family, his parents often spun jazz records at home. His father was a minister at the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. “He originally wanted to be a musician,” says Lee. “Then he got what they refer to as ‘the calling’ and went on to divinity school.” Lee lost his mother at age 15, and his father died when he was only 25. But during their lifetimes, he adds, “Both of [my parents] were very supportive of my music interests.”
Before joining Gillespie’s band, Lee was already well-versed in playing with some of the most iconic musicians in all of jazz history.
After he began jazz studies at the Philadelphia Musical Academy (now called University of the Arts), Lee hitched a ride up to New York City to audition for legendary drummer Max Roach. “I remember the look on the dean’s face when I asked permission to go out on the road with Roach,” says Lee, who got the coveted job.
Lee soon joined Roach in Pittsburgh for the first 10 days of the tour. “I learned more in those 10 days than I had learned in two years [in school] about jazz because he was training me. I was playing that bass back then,” says Lee, who gestures to his upright bass in the living room of his South Orange home which has doubled as his recording studio for decades. “[Roach] would come to my room every morning after breakfast with The New York Times and a pair of [drum] brushes […] He had this way of doing something with the pages and fluffing them up. He put it on the bed and he’d get a groove going. He did that every day; came to my room and talked about his repertoire and how he wanted to play it.”
Although Roach would eventually hire his previous bassist back, Lee’s opportunities continued with other jazz masters. After a recommendation from keyboard great Herbie Hancock, Lee and drummer Gerry Brown were hired by Dutch flute player Chris Hinze and moved to the Netherlands where they cultivated a relationship with a cadre of European musicians. Lee would later go on to tour and play with luminaries such as McCoy Tyner, Sonny Rollins, Larry Coryell, and Paquito D’Rivera.
Lee’s time with Dizzy Gillespie started out with a last-minute phone call from his friend and fellow bass player, Bob Cranshaw. “Dizzy fired his bass player,” Cranshaw told Lee. “He needs a bass player next Friday night in Memphis.” And so Lee headed down to Memphis for his first gig with the famed trumpeter. But that was just the beginning.
Lee’s relationship with Dizzy went far deeper than his onstage musicianship. He served as the “straw boss” for the band as well – an old-school term for someone who handles finances and payroll. With all of Dizzy’s band incarnations, that turned into a large responsibility. And after Dizzy’s death, the Gillespie family knew that Lee would be the best person to carry the torch.
After being approached by the Gillespie family, Lee began to fuse his extensive knowledge of Dizzy’s music with his own recording and production work that had begun in the 1970s. “I conceived of a college multimedia program where a bunch of us who played with him would go to colleges and we’d show slides and talk about his approach. I called it the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All-Stars.” Lee produced a record with the same name – and the requests for live bookings started to flow in.
“Dizzy had a love for what he called ‘music from south of the border’ and he pioneered what was called Afro-Cuban fusion,” says Lee. “He actually was the first to fuse Brazilian music with jazz. Stan Getz gets the credit from ‘The Girl from Ipanema’” – the world-renowned bossa nova jazz song from 1963 written by Antônio Carlos Jobim and performed with guitarist João Gilberto – “but Dizzy was there earlier.” Gillespie had released another Antônio Carlos Jobim bossa nova jazz tune called “Desafinado” in 1961. It was arranged by Argentine pianist Lalo Schifrin, who would later go on to write “Theme from Mission: Impossible.”
Lee is now executive director of the three “Dizzy bands”: the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, the Dizzy Gillespie All Stars, and the Dizzy Gillespie Afro-Latin Experience. And perhaps Aretha Franklin said it best when the Afro-Latin Experience performed at her 72nd birthday extravaganza: “Oh man, they are so good, it’s just ridiculous.”
As the subject turns to his recording and producing career, Lee gestures to a small, gilded gramophone statue – the Grammy award that he won in 2019 for the work he did on “Jazz Batá 2” by Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés. Lee served as the recording engineer, producer, and mixer. And now the “Best Latin Jazz/Jazz Album” title can be added to his many accolades.
Before moving to South Orange, Lee was living in Maplewood and looking for just the right house to serve as a recording studio as well. In 1992, he and his wife Patrice moved to their current home, which was built in 1929. “The wooden floors are fantastic and it has nice, thick walls,” he says. “Good recording is about isolation.” With that in mind, Lee has wired up the house so he is able to set up musicians in their ideal places. He often positions a drummer near the breakfast nook. The living room features a beloved grand piano that Lee acquired from the famed Hit Factory when its West 54th Street headquarters closed down in 2005. And in a corner nearby, Lee’s exquisite Rob Allen fretless bass sits on its stand. That same bass will be in his very capable hands during the upcoming show at SOPAC.
“SOPAC is near and dear to my heart, you know? It’s just a great venue,” says Lee, who has been involved with the center since it first opened. He was integral in bringing Yo-Yo Ma to play SOPAC’s Inaugural Grand Opening Gala Fundraiser in 2006. But Lee has helped the community celebrate jazz in South Orange for over two decades. He founded the “Giants of Jazz” series in 1997 which was held in the auditorium at South Orange Middle School before it moved over to SOPAC. “Last year would have been our twenty-third year,” he says. “We’re hoping to hold it again this coming November.”
This interview with John Lee represents something else that wasn’t part of the many topics discussed during our time together. It was our first in-person interview conducted since the pandemic began. And as we shook hands and discussed seeing each other at the Dizzy Gillespie Afro-Latin Experience show in June, the expanse of Dizzy Gillespie’s jazz lineage felt even more powerful. John Lee is making sure that jazz is built to last.
The Dizzy Gillespie Afro-Latin Experience will perform at the South Orange Performing Arts Center on Saturday, June 19 at 8:00 p.m. Visit sopacnow.org/events/dizzy-gillespie,
call 973-313-2787 or email boxoffice@SOPACnow.org.
Donny Levit is a writer and Maplewood resident. He is the author of "Rock n’ Roll Lies, 10 Stories." You can hear him DJ his indie rock show "Under the Influence" and his jazz show "Kind of Pool" on Bone Pool Radio. Follow him on Instagram @undertheinfluenceradio and @kindofpoolradio.