AfriGeneas States Research Forum
[AL] Consuela Lee, 1926-2009
Consuela Lee, Jazz Pianist and Educator, Dies at 83
By BRUCE WEBER
Consuela Lee, a jazz pianist who fought to establish an arts school for children in rural Alabama on the grounds of a moribund academy founded by her grandfather, died Dec. 26 in Atlanta, where she had lived since 2007. She was 83.
Her death was confirmed by her daughter, Monica Moorehead; her mother had Alzheimer’s disease, she said.
Ms. Lee was a classically trained pianist who recorded distinctive arrangements of compositions by Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and others, playing in a style influenced by the likes of Mary Lou Williams and Art Tatum. She studied music at Fisk University in Nashville and Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and had a long career teaching theory and composition at historically black colleges including Alabama State University, Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), Talladega College and Norfolk State University.
By the late 1970s Ms. Lee had returned to her hometown, Snow Hill, just south of Selma, Ala., determined to awaken the legacy of her grandfather William J. Edwards.
In 1893, armed with a degree from Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, Edwards founded a log-cabin school in one of Alabama’s poorest areas. By 1918 the school, known as the Snow Hill Institute, owned 24 buildings on more than 1,900 acres and had between 300 and 400 students pursuing both academic subjects and vocational training. Edwards retired a few years later, but the school survived until 1973.
Ms. Lee’s notion was to resurrect the spirit of her grandfather’s enterprise by creating a performing arts school for local black children. For the right to open the school, she negotiated with the Wilcox County Board of Education, which operated the buildings on a 10-acre tract of the former campus that is owned by the state. What became known as the Springtree/Snow Hill Institute for the Performing Arts opened in June 1980, running daily after-school music programs and summer programs for nearly a quarter-century.
Ms. Lee’s plans to expand the school were thwarted in legal battles with a private group that controlled the surrounding land. But the school survived on grants until 2003, when Ms. Lee’s health began to decline. The drummer Max Roach, the vibraphonist Milt Jackson, the actor Delroy Lindo, the singer Odetta and the filmmaker Spike Lee, who is Ms. Lee’s nephew, all made visits to Springtree. A jazz xylophone choir begun at the school, Bright Glory, made frequent tours of the state.
Consuela Edmonia Lee was born in Tallahassee, Fla., on Nov. 1, 1926, but grew up mostly in Snow Hill, graduating from the Snow Hill Institute. Her father, Arnold W. Lee, was a cornet player and the band director at Florida A & M University. Her mother, Alberta G. Lee, was a classical pianist and teacher.
Young Consuela began playing the piano at age 3 and tackling Chopin études not long after. Her brothers and sisters all played music, and sometimes several of them played together, as they did one year at the Newport Jazz Festival.
“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,” Ms. Lee told The New York Press in 2001. “They wanted us to concentrate on the Europeans. Of course we’d play jazz anyway.”
Spike Lee, the son of her brother, the bassist Bill Lee, hired her as a music supervisor for his film “School Daze.”
Ms. Lee’s marriage to Isaac Thomas Moorehead, a basketball coach, ended in divorce. In addition to Ms. Moorehead, her daughter, who lives in Jersey City, and her brother Bill, who lives in Brooklyn, she is survived by a son, Dr. Cameron Lee Moorehead, of Atlanta; three other brothers, Clifton Lee, also of Brooklyn, Arnold Lee Jr., of Camden, Ala., and Leonard Lee, of Kalamazoo, Mich.; and a sister, A. Grace Lee Mims, of Cleveland.