Saxophone star still in love with his craft
Music was a love shared by his family, but Keith Lee didn’t join them until he got his first ukulele.
He was about 8 at the time. The tiny, four-stringed instrument was a gift from his father, George.
“He was a singer in church and my brother Colin sang also, with [jazz band] Burning Ice, but for myself it all started with the ukulele.”
For the most part, he taught himself. He then moved on to mouth organs, switching to the guitar when he was about ten.
“That was the instrument I played most of my life,” the 72-year-old said.
“I was influenced by Leon Spike Jones, who taught me a few chords and I went from there. I just had a gift for music. I can’t explain it.”
For 40 years, he was lead guitarist for The Emancipations, the gospel band he formed in the late 1960s. It didn’t stop him from picking up another instrument along the way.
“I must have heard the saxophone when I was young,” Mr Lee said.
“It was there, somewhere in my inner self. It was berthed in me somewhere and at some point of my maturity I heard a live saxophonist and it came forth.”
His first saxophone was a tenor bought in the early 1970s from Music City, a shop then on Parliament Street.
“I learnt enough to play a few songs and went with that,” Mr Lee said.
A woodwind class at Jacksons School of Performing Arts drew attention to his shortcomings.
“When the instructor began to talk musical terms, I did not have a clue,” said Mr Lee, who recalls vividly how confused he was by the reference to ‘minor thirds’.
“I stopped and pursued theory for a few years with Reverend Dennis Symonds, of New Testament Church of God, and at a certain point the meaning of thirds became clear.”
A course at Berklee College of Music in Boston seemed an appropriate way to progress,
“Berklee was most beneficial,” said Mr Lee, who released a gospel CD, My Hiding Place, with a few other artists about three years ago.
“It was just a summer course but it put me in touch with great musicians like Andy McGhee, who was a contemporary of John Coltrane.
“At Berklee, they give you the tools and from there on it’s up to you. When it’s time to leave they say, ‘OK, now go home and practise’. That’s key — and that’s what I did with the saxophone. It revolutionised my music.”
Despite that, the instrument didn’t stick.
Mr Lee continued on guitar with The Emancipations and he also played piano wherever he worshipped — Gospel Tabernacle, Open Door Christian Assembly and, in recent years, Richard Allen AME Church.
Then, about 12 years ago, “some brothers at church” asked for saxophone and clarinet lessons.
“They wanted me to teach them,” he said.
“I love to pass on my experience and knowledge. The homework I gave them I would do myself to be up on my game before the next lesson and that’s when my passion was reignited. And I haven’t looked back, I’m still playing scales.”
Today, the alto saxophone is his instrument of choice. Mr Lee often plays it at fundraisers and other events. He’s also a regular performer at Anchor Restaurant Bar & Lounge in Dockyard.
“In travelling around with the tenor saxophone and my equipment, it became heavy, so I demoted to alto,” he said.
“I’ve fallen in love with it. It’s smaller and has a beautiful voice; I’m just enjoying it.”
•Copies of My Hiding Place are available from the artist Keith Lee, from Music Box and Brown & Co. Mr Lee will perform in a fundraiser at The Rhythm Lab in St George’s on Saturday
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