Livin' High Off Nickels And Dimes
01. The Theme / Aquarian Meloody
02. It's You Or No One
04. Jazz Ain't Nothin' But Soul
05. God Bless The Child
06. You Make Me Want To Dance
Bass – Stafford James
Drums – Napoleon Revels
Piano – Ray McKinley
Tenor Saxophone – Bob Ralston
Vocals – Joe Lee WIlson
The selection on this record are excerpted from a live radio concert on Columbia University's WKCR FM NYC
Recorded July 16th, 1972
At this point in his career, Joe probably was living off of nickels and dimes – despite the fact that he was one of the 70s hipper jazz singers, in a soulful spiritual camp that included vocalists like Andy Bey and Rufus Thomas. This album's a nice mellow effort, taken from a live show at Columbia Radio in 1972. The record features a nice moody reading of Harold Ousley's "Aquarian Melody", plus Horace Silver's "Strollin", Gloria Coleman's "You Make Me Want To Dance", and the groovy "Jazz Ain't Nothin But Soul"
Joe Lee Wilson obituary
Monday 18 July 2011 18.05 BST First published on Monday 18 July 2011 18.05 BST
The reputation of Joe Lee Wilson, the jazz vocalist, who has died aged 75, never matched those of such male stars as Jon Hendricks, Mark Murphy or Kurt Elling – yet his eloquent baritone voice invited him into their league, even if an easygoing nature and an inclination to sidestep the mainstream diverted him.
Wilson's rich sound reflected an African-American swing tradition that embraced such early black pop stars as Billy Eckstine, but he also drew on the raw passions of the blues, and fuelled the mix with the volatile ingredients of 1960s free-jazz. He performed with some of the music's biggest stars (including the saxophonist Sonny Rollins, and the trumpeters Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard), but also with such luminaries of the avant garde as the saxophonist, actor and writer Archie Shepp and the revolutionary drummer Sunny Murray.
Part African American and part Creek Native American, Wilson was born to farming parents near Bristow in Oklahoma. Early in life, he found he had almost instant recall of any song he heard once, and from discovering jazz through radio broadcasts by the jump-band star Louis Jordan, he moved on to Nat King Cole and Dinah Washington. When he was 15, he left the farm for Los Angeles.
Walking with his aunt on an LA street, the teenager heard a voice drifting from a club, singing the bebop anthem Parker's Mood. The singer was Eddie Jefferson, a pioneer of the vocalese style in which lyrics were written to famous improvised jazz solos – but when Wilson asked what the sound was, his aunt said it was "the devil's music". Wilson and Jefferson were soon friends, and the former would later observe that Jefferson's approach continued an African tradition of local history and experience expressed through poetry and song.
Wilson briefly studied classical singing, then jazz, at Los Angeles City College, and began to work the Santa Monica club scene – his first professional gigs being with Fletcher Henderson's alto saxist Roscoe Weathers, who told him: "As a musician sometimes you're gonna starve. You gotta learn to make your own work." The advice was to leave a lasting impression.
Wilson met the jazz diva Sarah Vaughan on the west coast, and heard most of the best bands in the country in California in 1958-59, including Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, and the Miles Davis band that made Kind of Blue. From 1959, he worked in Mexico, and was spotted there in 1960 by the singer Ernestine Anderson – who advised him to contact her New York booking agent. Wilson was reluctant to move at first, but he quickly realised that jazz's cutting-edge was being honed in NYC. Wilson met Shepp, the writer LeRoi Jones (subsequently Amiri Baraka), and Murray. They liked the newcomer's sound and his appreciation that jazz was in transition, and both Shepp and Murray invited him to sing their music.
In 1968, Wilson tied with Sly and the Family Stone for first prize on NBC's show Talent Search, and won a record deal with Columbia, but the company never released his albums. In the 1970s, he rented a building on Bond Street, close to the famous Rivbea loft run by the saxophonist Sam Rivers and his wife Bea, and built the 100-capacity music room he called the Ladies' Fort. Wilson understood the value of promotion, and encouraged other local lofts to join a loft association and run a regular music festival.
Some of Wilson's best known recordings were with Shepp, with whom he collaborated on landmark albums such as Things Have Got to Change (1971) and Attica Blues the following year. Livin' High Off Nickels and Dimes was a 1972 recording of a live radio show from Columbia University, and three years later, Wilson had a radio hit on New York stations with his rousing account of Jazz Ain't Nothing But Soul.
In 1977, he married his English partner Jill Christopher and moved to Europe. He periodically worked with the pianists Bobby Few and Billy Gault, and in recent years had toured the UK with local musicians, partnered by the formidable American pianist Kirk Lightsey. Wilson made the Candid Records album Feelin' Good during this period (its highlight was an unrehearsed duet with Lightsey on the poignant ballad There's No You) and a fine 2004 album with Italian musicians entitled Ballads for Trane – the intertwining of his voice with the tenor saxophonist Gianni Basso recalled the partnership of Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane in the 1960s.
Last year, despite having undergone heart surgery, Wilson travelled to Tulsa to be inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, and dedicated the song he performed there to Barack Obama.
Wilson is survived by Jill and their daughter Naima.
Val Wilmer writes: Joe Lee Wilson was a man with a sense of history and a generous person who shared whatever he made. When we met in New York in the early 1970s, he was singing at Trude Heller's, the epitome of Greenwich Village sophistication, and recording with Archie Shepp. At the Ladies' Fort some time later, he featured mainstream musicians including Count Basie, the saxophonist Frank Foster and his hero, Eddie Jefferson, as well as free players: Earl Cross, Monte Waters, Hakim Jami and Benny Wilson.
He fell on his feet when he met Jill, a UN translator. She gave me a place to stay in New York while I was completing my book As Serious As Your Life, and a year later, in 1977, Joe moved into my flat in Balham, south London. Within half an hour he had discovered the betting shop and within a day thrust a large sum of money into my hands – my "share" of his winnings. He cooked, washed clothes and did the ironing, then when Jill arrived, they raided the butcher's for lamb chops and goat, and he cooked up enough to last us a week.
It was a period of racial tension, with the National Front marching in Lewisham. I failed to persuade my visitors to join the protest, but when I returned from the demo injured and bleeding – hit over the head while taking photographs – they were dismayed. Nursing my headache in a darkened room, I groaned at the sound of distant hammering. Then Joe Lee appeared, towel full of crushed ice in hand, and proceeded to wrap it gently around my head. They left London to move into Jill's house in Kemptown, East Sussex, where Joe became a much-loved Brighton figure.
• Joe Lee Wilson, jazz singer, born 22 December 1935; died 17 July 2011