George E. Lee & His Novelty Singing Orchestra

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The leader of George E. Lee's Novelty Singing Orchestra was a talented multi-instrumentalist as well as vocalist, with a beautiful sister who could sing like a lark. Both George E. Lee and Julia Lee are…
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The leader of George E. Lee's Novelty Singing Orchestra was a talented multi-instrumentalist as well as vocalist, with a beautiful sister who could sing like a lark. Both George E. Lee and Julia Lee are legends of the Kansas City jazz scene, putting them in company with many other of the jazz world's most illustrious figures. The association comes down to much more than sharing time and place; George Lee was an early employer of great horn soloists such as trumpeter Buck Clayton and alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. The bandleader began his performing career as a baritone saxophonist in a U.S. Army band, circa 1917. He also began playing piano around this time.

Lee returned to Kansas City from the military and began leading his own small combo, which was booked often into the town's Lyric Hall venue. The group included his sister on vocals. His Singing Orchestra came about in the late '20s and lasted until 1934. In 1927, the group cut sides for the Merrit label, a firm owned by the Winston Holmes Music Company. The session resulted in "Merrit Stomp" and "Down Home Syncopated Blues," copies of which are an item desired greatly by collectors of classic jazz. The Lee siblings' singing significantly enhanced the band's reputation over local competition. Arranger Jesse Stone came in during the late '20s as Lee expanded the size of the group up to 13 pieces. The group's sound, now somewhat modernized, was captured by the Brunswick label's recordings of "If I Could Be With You," sung with great longing, and "Paseo Street," performed with much atmosphere.

Rival bandleader Bennie Moten must have been relieved when, for a short time, his band and the Lee outfit merged into one dynamic outfit. Despite the chemistry of this match, Lee was back leading his own group before long, again staying put in Kansas City rather than touring, and enjoying residencies at clubs such as the Brookside and the Reno. In the '40s, Lee switched gears completely: He quit music and moved to Detroit, where he managed a bar until his death. Julia Lee left her brother's band around the time of the brief Moten merger and had her own solo career. She can be glimpsed in a brief cameo in Robert Altman's film entitled Kansas City, not that this is a good enough reason to sit through it.