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Jeanne Lee's Voice

Eric Porter

Published: 2006-12-02

This essay attempts to recuperate the legacy of Jeanne Lee, an important artist whose work has gone largely unnoticed by scholars, while simultaneously examining the broader social and cultural significance of her work. Using Lee’s 1979 performance of her poem “In These Last Days” as a point of reference, I explore her multidisciplinary artistic practice that extended the parameters of improvised vocal music. “In These Last Days” exemplifies a cultural politics that was both a product of the political moments in which she lived and her interactions with a variety of thinkers and artists. This piece helps situate Lee’s work within the post-nationalist and post-cultural nationalist imaginary —an ethical, political, and cognitive remapping of the world -- informing the creative work and social visions of other African American improvisers during the 1970s. The recording showcases the ways that her incorporation of elements from intermedia performance practices enabled her social vision while implicitly commenting upon the deracinating incorporation of improvisation by the avant-garde art world during the 1960s. Additionally, Lee’s performance of gender on the piece raises a host of issues pertaining to the terrain female improvisers had to negotiate in different improvising communities and ultimately disrupts the privileging of masculinity when defining improvisational artistry. I also consider the ways in which her work encourages us to rethink jazz history as field and method.

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...partly because I know that’s the only way that we could solve a creative problem [using improvisation with children ranging in abilities] and what doesn’t work is trying to impose a template on the students who are not able to respond to that template.

– Pauline Oliveros (in working with Abilities First)