George E. Lee was the chief rival to Bennie Moten for the top spot of the Kansas City Jazz scene of the 1920s. Lee was born in Boonville, Missouri but moved to Kansas City with his family as a small child. He learned music at an early age and came from a long line of musicians including his father who led a string band in which young George played while in grade school.
During World War 1, he served in the Army and entertained the troops in France. He played several instruments and sang.
After his discharge in 1919 he came back to Kansas City and formed a Quartet with his sister Julia Lee. It was billed as the George E. Lee Singing Novelty Orchestra.
Lee had a great stage presence and much charisma but didn’t have the organizational skills as Moten and had a difficult time keeping his talented sidemen.
In the early twenties Moten and Lee were both competing to be the top band in town but in 1922 Moten was able to raid the Lee band and take his best players.
Lee was a very tough taskmaster that didn’t treat his musicians well. He was overbearing and often levied fines to make his point.
Moten was much more generous to his musicians and the Lee sidemen were glad to leave when they got the chance.
Just like Moten, Lee helped establish a Kansas City style that featured a stomp down blues approach that was popular with local audiences.
Lee only got the opportunity to record 8 songs during his career, two in 1927 for the small local Meritt label and 4 more for Brunswick in 1929. One tune in particular, Ruff Scufflin, gives us an idea of what the band sounded like at it’s best.
By the time Lee recorded, Moten already had a national reputation.
Lee’s difficult personality cost him what was probably his finest band in 1932 when several of the men defected, joining the new band of Thamon Hayes. Hayes took Herman Walder, Baby Lovett and Jesse Stone and combined them with Harlan Leonard, Booker Washington and Woodie Walder who were all recently fired by Moten.
Hayes was determined to put together a band that would destroy Moten so they rehearsed secretly in Hayes basement waiting for the chance to enact their revenge.
At the Musician’s Ball in 1932 they ambushed an un-expecting Moten and humiliated him.
This drove Moten to make more changes in his band and in 1933 after being rivals for years, Moten and Lee teamed up and formed the Bennie Moten-George E. Lee Orchestra which stayed together for a few months. From 1935 to the end of the decade Lee kept a band going with minor success. In 1937 he played an extended engagement at Musser’s Tavern in the Missouri Ozarks. A young Charlie Parker played with Lee at Musser’s where he practiced intensively and returned to Kansas City a force to be reckoned with.
In 1941 Lee retired from the music business and managed a tavern in Detroit. By the late forties he retired to San Diego where he lived out the rest of his life passing away in 1959. His sister Julia became a big star in Kansas City during the forties and fifties and will be profiled later this month.