At a jazz club in Greenwich Village in the late 90s, you would have seen it in the raw. In the wee hours, you’d find Stephen Lee. After he finished waiting tables for the night, he’d come straight to Smalls Jazz Club around 1 or 2 a.m., where jam sessions would last until 7 or 8 in the morning. Once the other musicians left, Stephen would stay: it was practice time. The first two years I lived in New York, I didn’t have access to a piano so I’d sleep in Smalls sometimes, just waiting for people to leave so I could sit down and practice.”
And then, after all those many late nights (and early mornings) at Smalls, after months of house sitting, waiting tables and struggling to make ends meet, Stephen finished his degree in jazz performance at City College and joined the music staff at Crenshaw Christian Center. It was a highly impactful experience for Stephen as he learned to live his life in faith. To take chances, to believe in God’s plan.
After spending two transformative years as musical director of Manhattan’s Crenshaw Christian Center under Dr. Frederick Price, tough economic times forced Stephen to leave the city he’d come to love so much. He headed home. He headed for Memphis.
And though it was necessary at the time, moving back to Memphis was one of those chances. But it wasn’t until he was home that his vision for his first album was fully realized. With a roster of stellar musicians on board – including Doc Samba and James Sexton – he finished the writing he’d begun in New York and completed his album.
Though Stephen had been playing piano and organ since he was just 8 years old, his passion for jazz was born when he traveled to Knoxville to study at the University of Tennessee. “Really, I went to college to pledge Omega Psi Phi,” Stephen says. “It sounds crazy, but I wasn’t even really accepted at UTK. Somehow, I got in. I went up there and I talked to the right people, told them that I was a self-taught musician and about the instruments I played.” It may sound crazy, but it makes perfect sense – Stephen was meant to be there. In his second year as a music student, Donald Brown joined the staff and introduced him to jazz. Under Donald, he was introduced to greats like Winton Marsalis, Bobby Timmons, Phineas Newborn, Jr. and Art Blakey.
He left Knoxville in to spend some time in Las Vegas, where his father lived, exploring music and continuing his studies at the University of Nevada under Stephen Carlson. He spent time as a touring musician with the Carnival Cruise Line, and even did stints in Paris and Switzerland with the Legendary Paris Gospel Extravaganza and Jazz Life with the Janis Carter Quartet. He’d seen and accomplished a lot before he ever stepped foot in New York City – but God had much more in store for Stephen.
“I would like my blessings to be a blessing for others,” he says.
Stephen Lee lives in Memphis with his wife and two daughters.
- Here I Am
- Stephen M. Lee
Freedom is what I felt when my hands touch the ivory keys, it’s like beginning at point A and knowing there are endless routes to take to get to point B. “You can use different scales, different phrases,” “You might use space, you might use blues, or different notes. It’s just freedom. When I sit behind the piano, I feel like I’m home. I’m really a quiet person, I don’t talk a lot. But when I sit down at that piano, that’s when it’s time for me to talk.” Stephen M. Lee
Having received his master’s degree in education, he sees the vision for the rest of his career clearly. He wants the jazz scene in Memphis to be cultivated, and to grow. He wants the musicians to understand the history of their city, and its role in greater jazz history; he wants them to know names like Phineas Newborn, Calvin Newborn and George Coleman. But primarily he wants to give back. He dreams of offering music education to young people in underserved areas, bringing in jazz greats to teach workshops, instilling his passion for jazz in the hearts of young musicians has begun.
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