In conversation with Ranee Lee

On jazz, invention, and the instrument of voice

You can't talk about jazz in Montreal without mentioning Ranee Lee. Since 1970, she has been a central part of the scene, wowing audiences with her powerful vocals, sense of feel, and commitment to growth and experimentation.

Lee first graced the hallways of the Schulich School of Music in 1987, and she’s as excited as ever about passing on her knowledge to the next generation of jazz performers. We caught up with her to learn more about her approach to teaching, how she stays inspired, and why jazz will remain a central part of Montreal music for years to come.

How does music move you?

Because music is personal for everyone, whether you share it with others or internalize it, I feel it becomes a soundtrack to your emotions and, in ways, everyday life.

It has been a spiritual connection when I’ve needed it to be, has helped me declare my inner thoughts with expression, and has acted as an emotional conduit — whether through inventing it or being captured by it. It also has uplifting properties and is a place to refresh and reminisce.

Personally, music is a source of connection. It is as a living organism with a (heart) beat, soul, language communication, rhythm, physical and mental development! It is a place to produce and feel!

Schulich has been expanding its jazz program. How do you think this impacts students’ overall learning experience in our School?

Each student accepted is equipped with particular talents and the desire to broaden their knowledge and reach their individual goals. As in every healthy community, by widening the field, this practice creates interaction and support between all students, and increases the aptitude range. The rotation normally filled by those in succession who follow the previous and successful alumni, expands the programs development with interactive experiences, support, confidence and input among the students. This is how it will become significant to a career in the outside world!

What do you believe is a key feature in enabling the best kind of music-making and music-learning experience?

As an instructor, tailoring and recognizing the students’ ability to adapt to new methods of teaching and experiences in a higher level of academia and encouraging individual research they may personally identify with musically, while introducing different music and practices in comparison. In addition, encouraging as many possible interactive music experiences to participate in, as often as possible.

What are some elements that are important to your teaching philosophy?

Interaction, invention, individual storytelling. Understanding the role of the voice in the music concept as a vocal instrument. Identifying as a Vocal Musician.

Jazz is often about feel as much as theory and instrumental mastery. How do you help students balance out these elements and find their voice?

In the same way the instrumentalist is tutored in the fundamental development of their ability and knowledge of their instrument, the vocalist has the added advantage of lyrical interpretation — another communicative tool. Developing a meaningful essence of the lyrics, in association with phrasing, paraphrasing, and displaced rhythms, while anticipating the connection of voice and instruments, gives a certainty to their style of jazz vocalizing.

Musicianship, of course, is a key element of confidence and stability, and the use of Scat language or syllables are tools to develop improvised elements in vocal jazz interpretation, although they’re not always necessary to demonstration. Being aware of the participative role the vocal musician plays is and has always been evident!

Jazz is a central part of Montreal’s musical history. As someone who has been part of the scene for a long time, how has it changed over the years? What has been the key to jazz’s ongoing popularity here?

The eminent styles of jazz reflect many scenarios, with something for everybody! Today there is more concentration on the education and study of the music, and a wider-reaching appreciation of the art form in all circles through a worldwide reception and recognition of the many influential and talented musicians and artists of the times.

In its constant evolution, the music of jazz has many elements that range from the ever-respected former giants to today's innovators that complement its history while introducing new perceptions.

The foundation of jazz, I believe, will continue to happily pervade our society through public support, the nature of creative resources, and the original and inventive spirit. I stated earlier jazz presents a personal identity in which we are affected by the exploration of human connection. We become involved in the personal identity and the vision of the players, and we accept the musical journey we are taken on. It becomes a spontaneous transition and reaction to the gift of the senses for all involved, that is why I feel the evolution of music has been, is, and always will be!

Reflecting on your career so far, what are some highlights? What do you hope for the future?

It remains and has been a long, musically enriched, and tremendously fulfilling career in which I have traveled extensively and played in numerous venues around the globe that, without music, I could have never imagined. I have learned and have accepted the power of music as a spiritual affirmation to human connection!

The bonds of association with other musicians past and present is a pledge of enduring comradery. The doors of my career have always excited me and filled me with gratitude for every experience and have allowed me the opportunity to represent and explore the benefits of my gifts and craft.

I hope to transfer the essence of my experiences, energy, and amazement to those with whom I instruct because of their dedication and expectations. I hope as well for their personal experiences to one day happily be revealed. Although it can be difficult at times, by life’s defaults, it’s still all (personally) worth it!

As a music fan, what are you listening to these days (across any genre)?

As a music fan there are really no indiscretions of what to listen to. So much can be conceived by the artistry of music. I am a traditionalist and a student always of the vocal instrument. And jazz old and new — especially of the new breed — is truly stimulating. But I am fully immersed these days in the sounds of Snarky Puppy! Speaking of stimulating!

Learn more about Ranee Lee

Photo credit: Vladim Vilain

Located in downtown Montreal, Canada, the Schulich School of Music embodies the highest international standards of excellence in professional training and research. We're known for our programs in orchestra, opera, jazz, early music, and contemporary music, and our leadership in sound recording and music technology creates unique possibilities for collaborations with the music community at large.

Back to top