A Blessing from the Pandemic

As difficult and painful as this period has been for the world, we sometimes see a silver lining emerge in the midst of tragedy. In September of last year, my sons moved out of our house. Our oldest Julian moved to Brooklyn and Matthew started his college experience at Juilliard. Suddenly I found myself home every night and getting to really spend time with my wife and daughter. That was a real treat, but as the days turned to weeks and months, my daughter Jacquie and I found ourselves practicing together for hours on end. Already a gifted violinist and improvisor, this time together allowed her to attain a facility with improvisation language that few teenagers possess.  Her new found talent is a blessing but it is only a glimpse of the real blessing of growing so close to her and having her join me and her brothers on the “Scene.” 

We will celebrate her arrival this Wednesday Night at Clement’s place in Newark joined by her brothers and a couple more members of our extended music family. 

Wednesday, October 20,2021 
Sets at 7:00 and 8:20 
Jazz973 at Clements Place Presents:
Mike Lee Family Band Introducing Jacquie Lee

It’s FREE, but you must secure your tickets here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/192957750827

Featuring Jacquie Lee – Violin with:
Julian lee – Sax
Matthew Lee – Drums
Mike Lee – Sax
Rebecca Lee – Violin
Liany Mateo -Bass
Nat Adderley Jr. – Piano

Peter Lin Interview

Peter Lin is an exceptional trombonist and budding entrepreneur. Since he came on the scene over a decade ago as a student at William Paterson he has distinguished himself as a forward thinking contributor to the jazz community. I was so honored that he asked to interview me as part of his jazz business series produced by his company, Yardbird Suite Entertainment.

This was done on March 10th, just a few days before we all went into isolation because of Covid -19. The last segment about “Mike’s perfect day” is a little too prophetic. I didn’t mean like this! This interview was a long one. We’ve known each other for so long, there was so much to talk about and Peter let me talk! I was surprised with what came out of my own mouth. The interview is indexed so you can bounce around to topics that interest you (See below the video). Enjoy.

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Secrets from a Jam Session Leader

Most jazz musicians have attended many jam sessions. Few of us have hosted a recurring jam session over a long time period. Here are some things I’d like you to consider:

Hosting is hard. There are many points of consideration when trying run a jam session that might not ever cross the mind of the average session attendee. It is important to remain a good positive rapport with the musicians you hire for the house band, with the regular fans, with younger participating musicians, with established/known musicians who might stop through, and with the servers, bartenders, and owner of the venue. Each of these groups might have a different set of needs and agendas. I often joke that the trick is not to try to please everyone, but just to decide who you’re going to piss off tonight. The understanding of the chemistry and interdependence of each of these categories of people is what sets a good jam session apart from a great one.

I want you to succeed. I want you to have a great musical and social experience which rewards your love for the music and challenges you to increase your skills and understanding of the music. Try to understand if things don’t exactly as you hoped this week. There might be 600 other considerations I’m juggling at that moment.

I’m your host. Please say hello and goodbye. It’s courteous and helps me know if I’m on the right track providing a valuable event.

Competition has it’s place. Most of the greatest musicians had storied “battles” that helped create their legend. These battles often happened at jam sessions. If you feel “defeated” or “cut” – come back next week and reclaim your stake.

Buy something. The venue is providing the scene and the lights and electricity. They are counting on your business. An appetizer and a soda go well with a late night set.

It’s cool to let me know you’d like someday to play in the house band, but it often puts me in an awkward place. I have a fairly regular rotation of players I use and I have spent a lot of time and energy cultivating a nice network of professionals whom I can count on for many reasons. Throwing a new cat into the mix isn’t always as easy as it seems. It’s not that your not KILLING IT!, but it’s not as easy as it seems.

It’s cool to come and hang out and listen to all the players without sitting in. I feel so many people are so apprehensive about sitting in that they’d rather sit home than come participate as listeners. But you can gain a lot of information just observing.

Play short – it’s a winning formula. Play one less chorus than you think and people will love you.

Young cats – please forgive me when I forget your name or don’t recognize you. I meet 100 new people every week. And you grew a beard or lost 50 pounds. It can throw me off!

Hope to see you this Wednesday, April 24th at Brown Bear Pub in West Orange!

How “Vibing” Works at a Jam Session

One of the most common complaints I hear about jam sessions is that someone was “vibed” or someone was “vibing.” That is to say, people feel that they were unduly judged or spurned by the leaders or co-participants of the jam session. Everyone has a story. It’s an epidemic – or so it would seem. “Vibing” is discussed as a reality. “I WAS VIBED” is declared as if it were a measurable, provable condition, which has a specific and objectively defined set of criteria that had been assessed by an omniscient committee of accomplished yet compassionate observers who passed along their findings to the “victim” of said vibing so that these victims could declare the injustice to the world. A more reasonable understanding of the phenomenon of being “vibed” only means that a participant wasn’t received in the manner in which he/she feels is appropriate based on his/her own estimation of his/her own abilities and status. The “reception” they are looking for can include the immediacy of their invitation to play by the session host, the players they are paired with, the crowd response at the conclusion of their solo, or the enthusiasm of the other musicians to meet them and exchange contact information. But the interpretation of these criteria is very difficult to quantify.

As a young musician attending jam sessions back in the day, I was frequently disappointed with the reception I received. And it was tempting to claim I was the victim of “vibing” but I found it much more tempting to regroup and return to a situation better prepared to receive the type of reception I wanted. My move to New York from the midwest as a young musician was a real eye opener. In my hometown, I was used to a certain reception at jam sessions. It was a big-fish/small-pond situation. Once in New York, the (seeming) complete indifference to my performances was hard to take. But perseverance paid off and eventually I became part of the jam session scene. Then I started to get work based on the networking that would take place at jams. This process was painful at times but ultimately rewarding.

My message in writing this post is this: stop assessing whether or not you receive the accolades you deserve. This is a fruitless activity for two reasons: 1) you can’t objectively assess your performance and 2) you can’t objectively assess your reception. So rather than kvetch about the “vibe,” be the vibe you seek. Bring the joy and energy with whomever you are paired; be a joyful listener; become familiar with the repertoire that is being performed; bring a sense of community and sharing and enjoy the reward of playing the greatest music in the world. Remember that frequency breeds fellowship and a sense of belonging to a scene bigger than yourself. Be a regular. Your presence can sway the session towards your vision.


Let’s just get this out there: I love practicing. Sometimes to a fault. By now I think that most people have caught on that practicing isn’t just something for young musicians, but a it is part of our journey throughout life.

I noticed last week that I had a Saturday night off. Checking my date book, it was the first time since September that I had a Saturday off. I’ve been busy playing improvisational music with wonderful musicians for several months. That’s great and I wouldn’t ever complain about that situation. But having a few weeks off here is so welcomed because I find myself back to my favorite way to practice, which is just for my long term improvement and not shedding – or worse – “cramming” for an upcoming gig. I’ve played and studied so much music in the past couple of months and I’m drawing from that to infuse my improvisations with new discoveries and melodies that have come into my awareness. The end of March brings in another stretch of several months of gigs and I’m working hard now to raise my overall level and add to my musical arsenal so my long time bandmates and fans have new material to hear.

Touring in Europe

Since my relatively slow schedule this week has allowed me a half a second to take a breath, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on two inspiring tours in Europe to start the year. Thanks to my dear friend the amazing bassist, Gianluca Renzi, we were able to spend most of January and the first half of February in Italy, France, Switzerland and even a pass through London. It’s amazing how strong the love for this American art form is throughout the world and it was a real treat share this music in an intimate trio format (tenor saxophone, bass, and drums) in wonderful venues with exceptional fans.

Club Bebop in Rome with Lorenzo Tucci on Drums
In Toulouse France with Lukmil Perez

Taking Stock, Part II

As I started out saying yesterday, several situations have caused me to want to reevaluate aspects of my career and attempt to define where I am and where I want to go. The first situation, investigated ad naseum in yesterday’s post, was the request to submit a bio. Second, my entire website had to be taken down over the weekend due to being overcome by malware. I don’t know why people, or internet bots are constantly trying to hack into my website, but they are. It’s crazy. Now that I’ve gotten a little bit savvy about website security, I can see that there have already been almost one hundred attempts to hack my website. As if there’s something of value under the hood. You want to spam my mailing list that badly? Whatever. Trying to stay up on it now. Anyway, in that process I’ve had to build a new website. I do it myself. It’s easy now with WordPress software. But since I’ve built my own site from scratch in that past I get incredibly picky about every minute detail. If you’re reading this, you’re probably looking at my website now and, for a DIY job, you gotta admit it’s not terrible.

So building a website is interesting. What do I want my online presence to be? I know with social media the personal website can be a little less important than it was ten years ago, but still this is the place people go who want to book me or my band, want lessons or clinics, or need a bio or a photo for a gig they’ve already booked me on. As I mentioned yesterday, I’m trying to transition from private journaling to public blogging and it’s not that easy. After writing yesterday’s entry, I went back and read a couple of my private posts from last month and earlier this month and I realize a lot of it is appropriate for public consumption – just remove a couple of curse words here, use an alias for someone I’m complaining about there and, “voila” instant blog post. Plus I found that I can back date posts so for travel related posts, I can make it look like it was posted on the day it was written. Look for that in the “travel” category soon.

So the question that arises when planning and developing the new site is “who am I?” and/or “who do I want the world to see?” and the tension between these two questions is a third question: “how vulnerable can I be”. I have a tremendous respect for people who post everyday on line. Friends of mine like Mike Ledonne, the great pianist, Corey Wallace the trombonist, and saxophonist Bruce Williams are very active and it is extremely impressive. It takes a lot of time, and sometimes I see them getting into some seriously heated discussions on line which takes even more time and I think to myself, “do I really want to get into it like that?” Do I want to stumble into some argument that takes me away from playing music? The answer to all these questions is, “we’ll see”. Just like listening to old recordings of myself, I find distance makes me less critical and less afraid if people hear it. To that end I’ve already posted a couple of clips from YouTube from a few years ago and I am much more enthusiastic about people listening to them now than I was when they were first posted. Having this huge backlog of private journal entries will afford me the opportunity to go back and clean up some of these writings and post them here.

The third situation that is causing me to seriously reflect on what I value is the opportunity I have later this month to record my own “record”. I’ve got many ideas about what I can record, what I “should” record and what I want to record. I’ve got a bunch of original tunes from the past 5 or six years since I’ve recorded. I have a lot of trio repertoire (chordless) from my 6 years of Wednesday jam session house bands, and then all sorts of music and styles and ideas from the wide variety of musicians I’ve had the honor of creating with over that time. So there’s a lot to draw from and again the question “who am I” becomes very significant in this process of music making. Like writing a bio, this can be a painful self-investigation that bumps into and hopefully flushes out the thought patterns that have hindered me from presenting my own sound vigorously.

Balancing Performing and Teaching Music

I typed this the other day in anticipation of being asked:

“How do you balance being a performer and educator?”

There isn’t really much balance. I can’t treat them as opposites. There’s usually a misinterpretation about educators. Dizzy Gillespie was the greatest educator. He had a message and he wanted to share it. This is great music. It’s about the struggle of America to overcome it’s horrible sin of slavery and continued oppression. Learning the notes is part of it, but educational institutions in this country founded and constructed on a European model often try to pluck the notes out of the music and leave the rest behind. In this model learning happens in the University and performing happens in the club or concert hall or jazz festival. If we look at ourselves as either “educators” or “players” we shortchange both activities. Educators who teach without a real connection to the practice of performing are at a disadvantage. I was like that. But I tried to keep the passion of a performer as I was getting pigeon-holed as an educator. But now as a busy performing musician it’s much easier for me to instill the reality of jazz performance in a traditional educational venue – classroom or private teaching studio. Some of the best lessons, my students tell me, is when I have a lesson to teach and I’m supposed to be preparing music for a gig. So I teach the music to the student. They get to see TS Monk’s book and read through the tunes. Or I’m memorizing some of Nat Adderley’s book while they’re sight reading – I’m teaching them to sight read while they’re helping me memorizing a tune. This is where teacher and performer are one. By the same token, the bandstand has to educate, too. When we’re on stage we have to communicate what is happening, who has soloed, why the tune is significant. Jam sessions are the ultimate educational tool. If a jazz musician can function at a jam session, they are ready for so much more. I try to play with the students and for them. I want them to look for challenges. To strive to know enough tunes that they can function without having to be spoon fed. I want them to be aware of the economics of the club, how we strive to invite in and entertain the lay people. There’s so much learning that goes on in the club that never would get translated into the classroom.

I’m honored and humbled to be a working jazz musician in New York City. This is not an easily attainable goal, in fact I often wonder if it’s a reasonable goal. To me the goal has to be to play music as often and as well as possible; to lose oneself in the pursuit of mastery. Having practical goals isn’t bad, but it can’t be the reason. If you’re goal is to put food on the table and get health insurance, there are better ways. But if you’re looking for spiritual fulfillment and to give your life meaning – there’s nothing greater than this music. It’s been quite a journey and with all the years of frustration I experienced, it’s easy for me now to see what a blessing my life has become. A working saxophonist and respected teacher.

I’ve read posts on social media lately by young musicians complaining about the way things are. Older cats don’t give them a chance. I know that sometimes I’m included in north Jersey scene as being an “insider” and being one of the people keeping other people from working. But I want to tell the younger musicians (and sometimes disgruntled musicians of my generation) that every moment you spend looking at what isn’t being done for you or looking to assign blame for your lack of success to someone else, you’re missing an opportunity to give of this music. You’re missing an opportunity to listen more, practice more, you’re removing the joy that got you caught up in this music in the first place. I feel I was usually successful at responding to every slight by rededicating myself to the music. Practicing harder. Learning how to prepare for and get a call from a band leader and then later, how to keep that gig and get return calls. It’s hard and it doesn’t make much sense. There are fewer and fewer bands that actually have a chair for a saxophonist. And if you’re working 30 dates a year with a band, that’s outstanding. There are no more 50 week a year gigs.

At some point, hard work makes you valued. To feel valued for what you do, when you’re doing what love is an incredible gift. I remember for years wishing I had more private students, more classes, more gigs and more teaching opportunities. But it seems that overnight that changed. I had to trim back my teaching activities, I find myself relieved to have a Saturday night off. I don’t ask often how much a gig pays. I do it if I know the music will be high level and I’ll be challenged. If not, I don’t need to even worry about it. I’m not going to destroy my inner peace playing in a situation that doesn’t support my musical vision.

Taking Stock

Several things happened recently that are making me take stock, reassess, and evaluate the state of my career. I was asked for a bio for the program for the NJAJE State Jazz Festival preliminary competition which I am adjudicating this week at five different locations throughout New Jersey. (You can see the result of my bio writing efforts at http://mikeleejazz.com/bio.) Writing a bio can be a painful process for a neurotic jazz musician. I’m not saying I’m neurotic, but I definitely find the process uncomfortable and neurosis could explain a lot – to someone who doesn’t know me well that is.

All kidding aside, I do feel that writing a bio, if done with integrity activates many uncomfortable self definitions from the past. I remember including associations in my earliest bios that included musicians who had been a guest artist with a college band that I played in. Including guest artists from college concerts is common practice, I know, but one that felt like cheating. Then there’s the gray area of including someone that I’ve hired on a gig, that didn’t hire me. Yeah, I’ve played with that person and gained experience from that interaction, but that’s not the same as getting hired by that person. Then there’s the shady practice of including someone in a resume whom I’ve worked as a member of a large ensemble backing someone who had nothing to do with hiring me and maybe didn’t even meet me. So as each of these somewhat dubious inclusions were dropped from each updated revision of my bio to be replaced by more authentic working credits, there was a sense of relief that my sited relationships are more direct and only placed in my bio because each of these artists has directly and repeatedly hired me.

And it’s all to create a story. A somewhat lengthy bio with authentic associations is nice. It helps to get work. I went through a lot of years and rejection and embarrassment to get certain gigs and then learned how to prepare and execute on those gigs to receive return invitations. Between the time I developed the ability to get desirable calls and the time I developed the ability to consistently get called back for a second, there were a lot of “one and done” gigs, and consequently a lot of names on my earlier bio renditions which represented one gig. So now I am able to put a bio together of people who know who I am and have called me for multiple gigs, and while logic would suggest that my insecurities and bad feelings about the process would dissolve – here they are.
Before I continue, I must stipulate that your continued interest in the inner madness of my very twisted sense of self in no way establishes you, the reader, as my official counselor, therapist, or other mental health professional. While I appreciate your kind attention, you will not be paid for the service regardless of your credentials.

What’s happening here? I’m blogging that’s what’s happening. For quite sometime I’ve been journaling, well actually for my entire adult life I’ve been journaling. I have read exactly none of my old entries – well almost none. In the past year and a half I’ve written in an online, but private journal that tracks the number of words I write and let’s me know when I get to 750 words and tracks the number days I do succeed in writing 750 words. I’ve found this an especially worthwhile endeavor. Check out 750words.com if you’re interested in finding out more about it. So now I’m wondering if I can blog publicly with some regularity. It’s easy to write privately knowing that no one, not even myself, probably will ever read it. It’s cathartic and helpful to reflect and see what my mind comes up with, but writing for public consumption, that takes some kind of guts. It also takes A LOT longer.

This entry is in my private journal, but I’m writing with the intention of publishing it on my all new reconstructed website, mikeleejazz.com.

What you can clearly see is that the topic I started out talking about went to a place I didn’t intend and this is the beauty of journaling – the seemingly innocent discussion of writing a new bio – which I thought would be a single sentence in a list of events that were causing me to self reflect – became a 400 word segment in what looks to be a multi part blog now. This is the intention of spontaneous writing: winding into territory of hidden fears and possible neurosis that wasn’t really defined until I let the writing wind through and shed light on deeply held unexamined thoughts.