•  HOME 
  •  BOOKS 
  •  WWP 
  •  DONATE 
  • Loading

Follow workers.org on
Twitter Facebook iGoogle


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 Alabama.

Ms. Lee characterized the Alabama schools as a death sentence for Black children.

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 community.

Consuela Lee with Snow Hill students, 1985.
WW photo

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 City.

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 etudes.

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 Sarah Vaughn.

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 pupil.

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 introduced

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 teacher.  

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 University.

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 to perform.

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, Malcolm Lee.

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 Iraq.

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 www.consuelalee.com.

E-mail: [email protected]