Bill Lee, the jazz bassist who played with Bob Dylan and Duke Ellington before composing scores for his son Spike Lee, died at his Brooklyn home on Wednesday morning. No cause of death has been confirmed. He was 94.
The news was confirmed on Spike Lee’s official Instagram where he shared a series of portraits of his late father captured by David Charles Lee. He also shared The New York Times obituary and the album art for his 1989 film “Do The Right Thing” score, which Bill Lee composed.
The late Lee also wrote the soundtracks for his son’s first three feature films: “She’s Gotta Have It” (1986), “School Daze” (1988), and “Mo’ Better Blues” (1990). He also scored an early Spike Lee short, “Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads,” the first student film to premiere at Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films Festival, in 1983.
Before his son’s career launched, leading the Lee family to become synonymous with some of Hollywood’s most beloved films, Bill Lee was a highly regarded jazz bassist in Atlanta and Chicago.
He moved to New York in 1959 and as a session musician, got called to play with Bob Dylan (his bass notes appear on Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”), Aretha Franklin, Simon and Garfunkel and Harry Belafonte, among others. As a composer, he worked with Max Roach on several of the drummer’s records.
Bill Lee and his son were estranged for some time in the mid-1990s due to differences over finances and family matters, putting an end to their film and music collaborations. In addition to Spike Lee, Bill Lee is survived by his wife, along with three sons and daughter, a brother and two grandchildren.
“Everything I know about jazz I got from my father,” Spike Lee told The New York Times in 1990. “I saw his integrity, how he was not going to play just any kind of music, no matter how much money he could make.”