Jazz singer, dancer, song writer, drummer, saxophone player, university teacher, artist, actress, author, recipient of numerous awards, including The Order of Canada – Ranee Lee is also grandmother to 14 grandchildren

Famous as a jazz singer who has travelled the world, who has performed and recorded with some of the world’s best musicians – it might surprise you to know that Ranee Lee started out her performing career as a dancer. It was serendipity that changed the course of her career, a change that would bring her international recognition and admiration.

“I was dancing with an Afro-Cuban touring dance troupe. We were in a small town in Ontario, and we had to extend the length of our performance to fill the time allotted for the show. I was chosen to sing some songs with the band to fill that time, and the audience loved it!” It was a new beginning for Ranee Lee – the jazz singer.

Ranee was an only child and was raised in Brooklyn, New York.
Her father died when she was young, and her mother Inez (herself an only child) took on the role of a single parent. “My mother was a wonderful pianist, and she arranged for me to take lessons. I’d hide out on the fire escape until my teacher would give up and leave.” Ranee’s passion was for dance, and she took lessons and studied from the age of 6 to 16. “I took ballet, and as I got older, we studied modern and interpretive dance”

Singing was also a big part of her life. “Singing was always natural for me – I sang in school choirs, church choirs, doo wop groups and a did little back-up singing in bands.”

In the 1960’s Ranee worked as a singer with Toronto as a home base. Her agent suggested that she also learn an instrument, as it would increase her marketability and add variety to her performances. “I took up the drums, and taught myself the saxophone.” To this day, Ranee is still a member of the Musician’s Union. Her regret – “I wish that I had taken those piano lessons my mother wanted me to have – it would be really useful for me to be able to play.”

Ranee first came to Montreal to perform as part of a band in 1969, and she returned in 1970. “I had a new manager based in Montreal, and he arranged for me to work at the Bonaventure Hotel as a soloist. “Leon Aronson formed a band of fabulous musicians to accompany me. We were a hit with the audiences, and the hotel extended our contact to 3 weeks.” Ranee Lee became a sought after performer, and there was more work for her and the band. And…there was more than music. “Richard Ring was the guitarist, and I was really impressed with his musicianship, and the depth of feeling he put into his playing.”

“As a performer, you want to communicate with your audience – to have them feel the same things you’re feeling as a performer. Your audience should have the privilege to hear you like that. Here was this guitarist who was doing just that with his playing…” Ranee was so impressed that she wanted to get to know Richard better, and she asked him out for a drink after one of their shows. “We went to a little club on the corner of Crescent Street and de Maisonneuve, and we talked and talked about each other. We became very good friends, based a lot on our respect for each other’s musical ability.” Ranee’s eyes sparkle and she smiles, “The rest is history…”

Their family doubled overnight. Ranee had three children from her previous marriage – and Richard four. All of a sudden it was a large household. “They’re all out of the house now, and we are blessed with 14 grandchildren!”

Ranee’s musical career flourished. The band toured the province and the United States. Along with her dear friend Oliver Jones, Ranee was one of the original recording artists with Jim West’s Justin Time Records. “I owe a lot to Jim – he’s always had confidence in my artistic judgement; and he’s been willing to engage the best musicians for our recordings. We’ve asked many great musicians like bassist Ray Brown, drummer Ed Thigpen and of course Oliver – and they’ve always said ‘yes’ to record with us.” Other notable collaborators include; Clark Terry, Bill Mayes, Terry Clarke, Red Mitchell, Milt Hinton, John Bunch, and George Arvanitas. It’s also a significant testament to Ranee’s ability as a singer – that musicians of international stature were enthusiastic about working with her. Ranee continues; “Being a recording artist is very important for a performer, giving you credibility. It’s like having a very important calling card.”

Ranee has recorded 10 albums with Justin Time, and will soon release another, recorded live in Montreal’s Upstairs jazz club in the fall of ’08. Accompanying her are long-time favourite musicians John Sadoway on piano; drummer Dave Laing; bassist Morgan Moore; and husband Richard Ring on guitar. “They’re my ‘dream team’. They always know where I’m going.”

“Montreal is a wonderful place for jazz performers.” Ranee gives credit to Jazz Festival founders Alain Simard and André Ménard. “Thanks to their foresight in creating a jazz mecca, (which now offers year-round concerts in addition to the summertime Montreal International Jazz Festival), we now have jazz being taught in schools and universities. Jazz lives healthy in Montreal because of the festival.” Ranee and Richard contributed to the early festival marketing efforts, performing as musical ambassadors at press conferences and official functions.

Ranee has been active in teaching jazz vocalists studying at McGill (now the Schulich School of Music at McGill) since 1985.

“I work one-on-one with the students, helping them with finer aspects of singing and performing. The students are required to sing in a jazz choir, and a combo, and I help them with their performance techniques. I also give master classes.” In addition to her work with McGill, Ranee has provided a similar service to Quebec City’s Laval University music school for the past seven years.

“Teaching also gives me the opportunity to receive fresh ideas from my students – it’s a two way communication.”

Ranee Lee – Actress. Ranee performed as Billie Holiday in the one-woman musical Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. The show won critical acclaim at La Diligence supper club in Montreal, in addition to runs at Club Soda and Centaur Theatre. “You have to loose who you are – there’s no going back – to successfully take on a part like that.” The show caught the attention of a Toronto promoter, and they went all-out to stage the play, purchasing a night club and decorating it in the style of the 1950s, even naming it Emerson’s Bar & Grill. Ranee won a Dora Mavor Moore Award for her acting performance. “The Toronto production was more aggressive, and the director wanted me to really fall down – not just sort of crumple to the floor. The cuts and bruises were real! After 9 months I asked to be replaced, partly because of the physical toll it was taking on me.”

Deep Song, a recording of the songs from the play followed in the mid 80’s. “It was a very short recording session, and we did most of the songs on the first take. I was at ease with the material because I was familiar with those songs after playing the role for so long, plus – I was accompanied by Oliver and Richard.” Not surprisingly, Deep Song became one of Ranee’s favourite albums.

Ranee returned to the stage as an actress in the 2001 Saidye Bronfman Centre (now the Segal Centre for the Performing Arts) production of Having Our Say as one of the two Delaney sisters. Ranee played the 103 year-old Sadie Delaney. “The transformation was astounding… the first time Richard came to see the play – he could hardly believe it was me up there!” Ranee continues; “We had a working kitchen, and had to prepare a meal, while still delivering our dialogue and maintaining our characters.”

Ranee conceived, wrote and performed in Dark Divas, a musical and double CD set about the lives and experiences of prominent black female performers such as Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Pearl Bailey and others from that period. The recording won a Juno nomination in 2001.

We often say, or hear others remark ‘I should write a book’. Well, that’s just what Ranee Lee said to herself…and actually did it. “I wanted to write a children’s book. I had been performing a song called Nana What Do You Say? for about 14 years. We have always received a lot of positive comments about the song, and I decided to write a book along that theme.” Ranee was concerned about being a small item in a large publishing house and to seek a small publisher. It proved to be a good decision. “They fell in love with the story, and I knew we wouldn’t be pushed aside.”

In addition to writing the book, Ranee, who is an accomplished artist working in oils, also did the illustrations. Sales went very well, and the publisher has asked her to write a second book.

While all this was going on, Ranee was also performing and travelling the world, representing Canada as a jazz performer. “We’ve performed in Spain, France, Chile, South Africa, Scandinavia, Mexico and the United States. We also played in Israel, sometimes when other artists wouldn’t go. As a Christian, it was a moving experience to be in the Holy Land.”

The Canadian Government showed their appreciation for Ranee’s work as a musical ambassador, as well as her dedication to teaching. On February 17, 2007, Ranee was invested into The Order of Canada. “It’s almost indescribable – born in Brooklyn to humble beginnings as the only child of another only child – I’m so honoured to have been accepted by a country! I’ve noticed a sense of pride in my own family – they walk a little taller. I could not have given them a better gift that to know that they have a ‘place’ in this country.”

In October 2007, Ranee was presented with an award of appreciation and contribution to the development of the McGill Jazz Program by the McGill Schulich of Music.

Ranee is excited about her eleventh and newest recording for Justin Time, titled Live at Upstairs. Still pushing the envelope and setting high standards for herself, she comments; “I’m on my toes with these songs, even the ones that I know so well.”

“Music is all about communication – we’re having a dialogue with each other on the bandstand and with the audience. You have to be in tune with each other to involve the audience.” Ranee Lee continues to earn the respect of her fellow musicians, entertain audiences, inspire students and love her grandchildren. What could be better…Bravo!

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