Ottawa Jazz Festival: Keeping up with Ranee Lee

Ranee Lee performs at the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival on June 22.

Ranee Lee is not one to slow down.

To prove the point, this pillar of Montreal’s — and Canada’s — jazz scene was just in Sochi, Russia for a concert. That’s right — one concert.

“It took longer to get there and get back than the concert. Still and all, it was a fabulous experience. It’s wonderful to know that our music is so prevalent. It’s everywhere.”

The 40 hours of travel to the city on the Black Sea where the 2014 Winter Olympics was held was worth every jet-lagged minute, she said.

The concert had been in the works for several years, she said. Her manager and friend, Jim West, president of Justin Time Records, had started working on the connection at an international showcase. It’s a bit like dropping a message in a bottle that someone finally opened.

“The reward was how I felt and how I was received,” she said. “It was a full house and an 18-piece band. I felt like I was home.

“I can’t believe that at this stage in my life I am not so jaded that I can’t be surprised by something like that.”

Lee has been through some ups, such as JUNO wins and some downs. The most recent was the 2018 death of her husband and true partner in music, guitarist Richard Ring.

Still, Ranee said, “I never left the game. Our union was based upon what we did and how we found each other. I think I would have done disservice to his memory and our life together if I had retreated.”

Lee isn’t the type to retreat. She was born in Brooklyn, New York and was raised by a strong single mother.

“I think I was born to do what I do. I was lucky I was able to sort of recognize that early in life no matter the hardships. or benefits are. Other than giving birth to children, the only other thing that has sustained my soul is the music I travel through.”

The only child of an only child “lived in a lower middle class family. My mother worked 24/7 and early in my life my parents separated so I was really raised by her. I emulated what I thought I was seeing from her.”

Her mother worked hard to provide the kind of security a young person needed.

“And music was a strong part of her world.”

Lee’s mother sang in the choir and played the piano.

“She tried to give me piano lessons which I would run from frantically. I hated my teacher. I would hide on the fire escape when he came to the house. I hardly ever saw him because I was never available. My mother still had to pay him.”

She said that, as a child, she didn’t think music was going to be her career. She did it “because it was there to do and it turned into a career.”

She also took dance lessons starting ballet and moving into tap.

All of that has helped her become what she calls a “well-rounded person. I am grateful for it now even though I resented it at the time.”

She left the U.S. for work eventually touring on the Ontario circuit in the late 1960s. That work took her to Montreal for gigs in places like the Bonaventure Hotel.

In Montreal, she fronted a small band that included a guitarist named Richard Ring. The two developed a professional relationship that soon became something much more.

“I was so amazed at his virtuosity as a guitarist. There was something about him. I had never heard anyone play the way he played. Those days, he was captivated by my legs in hot pants,” she said with a laugh.

In those days Ranee was “doing more Broadway and pop oriented stuff.” She was a huge fan of Nancy Wilson, Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald.

But “I didn’t use their material. I didn’t think about jazz the way I do today. I was on a circuit and playing to an audience that expected a certain kind of music. It was showbiz to the hilt.”

The demands of the circuit also opened up other musical doors for her. She learned how to play the drums and would perform with them. She’s even registered as a drummer with the Montreal musician’s union. She also picked up the double bass which she played with a country and western band.

And then she learned the tenor saxophone.

“That’s my favourite instrument. I played tenor for a long time in a girls band. I loved the sound of it. It sounds like the human voice.”

This is how her career has evolved. She’s unafraid to try something new.

One of her favourite past-times is painting. She loves the tranquility of sitting brush in hand with nothing else around.

She has written and has acted in a musical called Dark Divas which celebrates the women of jazz such as Wilson, Washington and Fitzgerald. And she writes and illustrates books for children.

Her philosophy is “use these gifts or least experiment with them. Then they evolve into something. There is a passion that grows from a realization that I can do this.”

The books are really an extension of being a grandmother.

She has written a song called Nana, What Do You Say about her and Richard’s relationship with their 15 grandchildren.

“Something touched me on the shoulder and said ‘You should write a book about that’ which I did. It took off. I have nearly finished books two and three.”

Richard and Ranee were married previously and each had a family.

“We put seven children together and they have learned to respect and know each other.

“I feel Richard and I were meant to be together under every possible circumstance. With Richard gone, I’m treated by his children with respect and as a third parent. That speaks to the type of relationship Richard and I have.”

Her last album was recorded in 2014.

“I am begging to get back into studio, but the industry has totally changed from the time when I made my first album.”

Until the studio doors opens, Lee will be performing whenever and wherever. It’s what she loves. Her show at the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival will draw on past recordings.

She said she just recently started to put together a set list and so much of it was informed by Richard’s guitar.

Hearing him play was a hurdle that she has gotten over, but it wasn’t easy.

The set list emphasizes “fun music. That’s the part that I want to continue. I want to keep that alive. The music has to speak to me; it has to make me want to do it.”

She will be playing with her usual band including Dave Laing (drums), Taurey Butler (piano) and Dave Watts (bass).

There is a new guitarist, Carlos Alberto Jimenez. When Richard was ill, the bass player Dave Watts would bring Carlos over to the house to play with Richard, Lee said.

“For some reason Richard chose Carlos. He certainly brings his own style and wealth. When I hear him play I hear Carlos I don’t hear Richard playing through him.”

Moving forward but not forgetting, that’s Ranee Lee.

TD Ottawa Jazz Festival presents Ranee Lee
Where: OLG Stage Confederation Park
When: June 22 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.