Bill Lee, jazz bassist and father of filmmaker Spike Lee, dies at 94

FILE - Director Spike Lee, right, and his with sister, screenwriter Joie Lee, left, appear with their father Bill Lee at a screening of "Do The Right Thing" in New York on June 29, 2014. Bill Lee, a well-regarded jazz musician who accompanied such artists as Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel and Harry Belafonte as well as scoring four of his son Spike's early films, died Wednesday, May 24, 2023, according to Theo Dumont, a publicist for Spike Lee. He was 94. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP, File)
Bill Lee, center, was a jazz bassist and father to screenwriter-actor Joie Lee, left, and filmmaker Spike Lee. (Andy Kropa / Invision / Associated Press)

Bill Lee, a jazz bassist who played with Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Aretha Franklin and Duke Ellington, who was also the father of filmmaker Spike Lee, died at his Brooklyn home Wednesday morning. He was 94.

Spike Lee confirmed his father’s death via Instagram, sharing a series of black-and-white portraits taken by younger brother David Charles Lee.

Bill Lee composed scores for several of Spike Lee’s early films, including “She’s Gotta Have It” (1986), “School Daze” (1988), “Do The Right Thing” (1989) and “Mo’ Better Blues” (1990).

Born William James Edwards Lee III in Snow Hill, Ala., on July 23, 1928, Bill Lee was the son of two musicians. “My learning in music started with my mother and father,” he said during a 2012 interview with jazz bassist Jonah Jonathan. He instilled the same love of music in some of his own children: David played piano, Joy practiced bass, Cinqué played drums, Chris took up trumpet and Spike played cello.

Lee told The Times in 1994 that his great-great-great-grandfather Mike was the defiant son of an African king and that his grandfather went to school with Booker T. Washington.

“I went to school with Martin Luther King,” he added.

Inspired by saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker, Lee forayed into jazz, picking up his first bass while attending Morehouse College in Atlanta. But because the historically Black school didn’t have a music department, he actually spent time at Spelman College, another HBCU in Atlanta

where he sang in the glee club and played in the quartet.

After graduating from Morehouse in 1951, Lee traveled by train to Chicago's South Side, where there was a robust jazz scene. He made his way to New York City in 1959.

“New York is the epitome of jazz to me,” Lee said. “All the great musicians come here.”

There he recorded on Strata-East Records, a musician-owned label, and founded and directed the New York Bass Violin Choir, described as a “narrative folk, jazz opera” with pieces like “One Mile East,” inspired by growing up in the South near former slave quarters.

After collaborating on several films, Bill and Spike had a falling out in the 1990s that according to both men was a long time coming. Bill Lee told The Times in 1994 that the turmoil stemmed from Spike Lee being displeased with the bassist's relationship with his second wife, Susan Kaplan, and came to a head when he asked to borrow money from his son after getting arrested for heroin possession.

“I’m glad I was arrested. It woke me up. ... Dope was not part of my life until I was 40 years old,” Bill Lee said.

Still, Spike Lee respected his father’s musical genius. “Everything I know about jazz I got from my father,” the filmmaker 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.”

In addition to Kaplan and Spike Lee, the elder Lee is survived by sons David and Cinqué, daughter Joie Lee, and Arnold Lee, his son with his second wife; a brother, A. Clifton Lee; and two grandchildren. Christopher Lee died in 2014, and first wife Jacquelyn Lee died in 1977.

Associated Press contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.