JAZZ PIANIST, TEACHER, ACTIVIST
Consuela Lee was a liberator through education
Published Jan 6, 2010 6:56 PM
Consuela Lee, an African-American jazz pianist, composer, arranger and music
educator, passed away on Dec. 26 in Atlanta, Ga. She was 83 years old.
Ms. Lee had dedicated her life to helping preserve the integrity of
African-American culture, which she consistently traced to the resistance to
slavery, for future generations.
Consuela Lee being honored at the Rosa Parks
Museum, Montgomery, Ala., 2005.
WW photo: Monica Moorehead
She was the founder of Springtree/Snow Hill Institute for the Performing Arts
in Snow Hill, Ala., and its artistic director for almost 25 years. Snow Hill
Normal and Industrial Institute was originally founded by William James
Edwards, Ms. Lee’s grandfather, in 1893 to provide an education and
vocational trades to impoverished rural Black people, 30 years after the legal
end of slavery. Today, Wilcox County remains one of the poorest counties in
Ms. Lee characterized the Alabama schools as a death sentence for Black
SHI permanently closed its doors in 1973 due to a desegregation edict. In 1979,
Ms. Lee went door to door in the Snow Hill community to poll the residents on
whether they wanted to see a school in their community. When the majority voted
yes, she left her teaching job at Norfolk State University to reopen her
grandfather’s school as a performing arts center. Ms. Lee had vowed since
the age of 12 that she would one day return home to teach in the Snow Hill
with Snow Hill
Springtree’s main goal was to emphasize the contributions of African
Americans to the creative arts, especially through the media of music, drama
and dance. Children throughout Wilcox County, from pre-school to high school,
were encouraged to attend Springtree after their regular classes during the
school year and also during the summer months. Ms. Lee also took a job as an
artist-in-residence and traveled to schools in various Alabama counties to
teach music in schools that had no music programs.
From 1980 until 2003, Snow Hill Day Celebrations included musical programs that
attracted the Alabama community, and Snow Hill alumni and supporters from
throughout the country. These programs were carried out on shoestring budgets,
mainly small grants. In 1993, to help commemorate the centennial of the
founding of SHI, filmmaker Spike Lee, who is Ms. Lee’s nephew, legendary
folk artist Odetta and other artists attended.
In later years, other major artists such as drummer Max Roach, vibraphonist
Milt Jackson and actor Delroy Lindo came to Snow Hill to support Ms.
Lee’s work with the community.
Ms. Lee’s students, particularly a group of vibraphonists called Bright
Glory, toured college campuses, film festivals and churches around the country
to perform her arrangements of popular jazz selections written by Duke
Ellington and other famous jazz composers. They appeared in 1988 on
WABC’s “Like It Is” TV show hosted by Gil Noble in New York
Jazz was in her blood
Ms. Lee, who succumbed Dec. 26 after a three-year battle with
dementia/Alzheimer’s disease, was born on Nov. 1, 1926, in Tallahassee,
Fla., to Arnold W. and Alberta G. Lee. Her mother was the second child of SHI
founder William James Edwards and Susie V. Edwards.
Ms. Lee’s father was a cornet player and band director at Florida
A&M. Her mother was a classical pianist and teacher.
When she was 3 years old, she moved to Snow Hill and began to play the piano.
Lee became a child prodigy, playing classical music such as Chopin’s
When her father brought home a recording of Louis Armstrong’s 1927
“Struttin’ with Some Barbecue,” however, Ms. Lee fell in love
with jazz. This love affair only ended with her death. Among her favorite
artists were Nat King Cole, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Dizzy Gillespie and
Following her graduation from SHI in 1944, Ms. Lee attended the historically
Black college Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. There she heard an
instructor, Alphonso Seville, play jazz and soon afterward she became his
In a July 31, 2001, New York Press interview, Lee told columnist Alexander
Cockburn, “When I got to Fisk, and this was the odd thing about Black
colleges, they didn’t want us
to play jazz, which they thought quite a cut below Bach, Beethoven and Chopin
and the boys. They wanted us to concentrate on the Europeans. Of course
we’d play jazz anyway. One day I went into the music building, 18 at the
time, and there was this guy sitting there, playing like Tatum. I just stood
there looking at him. He asked me my name and said, ‘Are you a music
student? Aha, do you play jazz?’ ‘No, but I’m trying.’
He was a medical student at Meharry, a Black medical school in Nashville. We
ourselves and from then on it was Alfonso Seville. The heck with Beethoven. I
got a C in piano. My report came home, my mother said, ‘Consuela, a C in
piano?’ That’s all she said. She’s a very gentle person. I
can’t say enough about Alfonso Seville’s influence on me as a
pianist.” (http://tiny.cc/dQN1b) Lee wrote and performed on her 2001 CD,
Piano Voices, “Prince of Piano-Alfonso Seville” in tribute to her
Ms. Lee was a pioneer since during this period of jazz known as Bebop women
jazz pianists were very rare.
At a Newark, N.J., nightclub, she unexpectedly accompanied her idol, singer
Sarah Vaughn. In the early 1960s, Ms. Lee became choir director of the
acclaimed Phillis Wheatley High School Glee Club in Houston, Texas. She taught
music theory and composition at a number of historically Black colleges such as
Alabama State, Hampton Institute, Talladega College and Norfolk State
Becoming more and more disillusioned with the restraints of college teaching,
Ms. Lee decided that the time had come to move back to Snow Hill to teach. She
wrote many songs and folk operas for her students and the Snow Hill community
Ms. Lee also led a legal campaign to help the community win control of the more
than 1,400 timber-rich acres that Edwards had bought to begin the school.
Corporate interests have been raking in lucrative profits from cutting timber
while the Black community languishes in dire poverty.
In 1981, the Alabama Historical Commission cited Snow Hill Institute as a
significant landmark. This recognition led to the federal government officially
registering the school in 1995 as an historic site due to Ms. Lee’s
efforts to reopen the school.
Among her other accomplishments, Ms. Lee was the assistant music director for
Spike Lee’s second film, “School Daze.” She also contributed
music to the movie “The Best Man,” directed by her other nephew,
Among her numerous honors: She was inducted in 1992 into the Alabama Jazz Hall
of Fame. She received the Governor’s Arts Award and the Mary McCleod
Bethune Award. In 2005, she received an award from the Southern Rural
Black Women’s Initiative at the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Ala.
She performed at Carnegie Hall, Town Hall and Cami Hall in New York, and at the
Hampton and Newport Jazz Festivals. She — along with drummer, Sangoma Everett — performed in a jazz festival
dedicated to women artists in Vicenzia, Italy, in 2001.
Ms. Lee was one of the members of the Board of Directors for the Birmingham
Youth Jazz. She and the late trumpeter Jothan Callins were founding members of
the jazz group Quartet Alabama. They were also founding members of the
“21st Century Jazz Congress” along with other jazz musicians from
Georgia, Michigan, Tennessee and Alabama. The 21st Century Jazz Congress’
mission was to teach the true origins of jazz to youth and to encourage them to
perform and preserve jazz.
Ms. Lee was never afraid to confront racism. While she lived in Montgomery in
the early 1950s, she actively supported the bus boycott which began with Rosa
Parks’s refusal to give up her seat to a white man. Ms. Lee refused to
play the pro-confederate song “Dixie” when a customer requested she
do so while she performed at a dinner club in Williamsburg, Va. She also
attended anti-war demonstrations in Washington, D.C., against the U.S. war on
Consuela Lee was more than just “the world’s greatest
musician” as her brother, bassist Bill Lee, called her. She was a
champion for the liberation of Black people, especially in the rural areas. She
commented in 2006: “The state of Alabama, and the corporate timber
interests it is subservient to, have kept the Black community in semi-slavery
conditions. Reparations must be paid for the crimes committed against the
multi-generations of Black people in Alabama’s Black Belt.”
The writer is the daughter of Consuela Lee. Go to
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