A young Julian Lee was hired by the Auckland bandleader Bert Paterson, who, to stir up his edgy players, gleefully told them that Lee only played piano, accordion, alto and tenor saxophones, trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone, bass and drums. “He makes up for this,” he added, “by singing the vocals.”
So obvious was the musical gift of the man they called “Golden Ears” that Frank Sinatra asked to meet him during his 1961 Australian tour. Lee duly infiltrated Sinatra’s inner sanctum, whereupon the great singer said, “I want you to come over to the States. In fact you have to do that, because you’re a talent we want to foster.” “Well,” Lee replied, “what senor commands, I must do.”
In 1963 he sailed to Los Angeles. Most accounts agree he never actually worked with Sinatra, but his imprimatur made doors fly open, and gigs as an arranger, pianist and multi-instrumentalist flowed in, including with Peggy Lee, Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan. A key colleague was the blind British pianist George Shearing, for whom Lee transcribed arrangements in Braille, an ability so singular as to smooth away any US immigration issues.
He could do this because he was born blind himself (in Dunedin on November 11, 1923) as a consequence of his mother Emily catching German measles while pregnant to his father, Arthur James Lee, a carpenter. He followed his sister Christina and brother David into the world, and when only four years old, he heard Auckland’s Jubilee Institute for the Blind brass band, and was allowed to beat the bass drum. A year later he made the two-day trip alone to live at the Institute. There he learned to read music in Braille, and, studying multiple instruments (with piano his primary focus), became a member of various Institute ensembles, touring New Zealand aged 11.
His education over, he hosted radio’s Stump Julian Lee, in which listeners nominated songs he had to instantly perform on air, became a bandleader and arranger for radio, and married his first wife, Elsie. He was also among New Zealand’s most proficient bebop players, and in 1952 became musical director for a recording studio, where he produced and arranged records by diverse artists, including himself in the guise of Julian Lee and His Symphony of Magic Pianos.
In 1956 he married his second wife, Elaine, and two years later moved to Sydney where he worked as an arranger for the ABC and Channel 7, recorded under his own name, and founded a company producing jingles. Visiting musicians such as Shearing and singer Winifred Atwell tried to lure him overseas before Sinatra succeeded, whereupon Lee lived in Hollywood, and in 1964 he and Elaine had a daughter, Sharon-Ann. While there he was musical director for The Pat Boone Show, composed, played in LA’s jazz clubs (including accompanying Sarah Vaughan), was a friend of Doris Day’s (via their dogs) and joined a coterie of jazz pianists who gathered to swap ideas, with the great Bill Evans among their number.
In 1968 the family briefly returned to Sydney before being lured back to LA to work on records by artists ranging from Willie Nelson to Liberace. During another quick Sydney stint the offer of becoming Artist and Repertoire Manager for Capitol Records was too good to refuse, so by 1971 he was back in LA, where he married his third wife, Pamela, in 1973.
In 1974 Lee left the US for good, settling in Auckland, performing, working in radio and directing Auckland’s Neophonic Orchestra, before moving to Sydney in ’78. He worked for the ABC and Channel 10, and produced and arranged records for such artists as Ricky May, Don Burrows, James Galway, Yvonne Kenny and Kerrie Biddell. He led his own bands, was long-term resident pianist at the Regent and Intercontinental hotels, and accompanied visiting jazz musicians including Ronnie Scott and Lee Konitz. His larger works were performed by orchestras including the Sydney Symphony.
Among his regular collaborators was bassist Craig Scott, who later ran Sydney Conservatorium’s jazz course. When the young Scott first played with Lee in 1980, Lee intuited that Scott was reading the chords to their standard repertoire, and told him to use his ears, instead. Scott says this was among the biggest lessons of his life. After the gig Lee told him to take the sheet-music book home and burn it, and, to the surprise of his mother who had only recently bought it, Scott did exactly that.
Lee’s extremely melodic improvising was replete with lively wit, keen logic and an instinct for surprise. He was also a peerless accompanist, exemplified by his collaboration with singer Kerrie Biddell, and as a blind arranger he had an encyclopaedic knowledge of his own scores.
In 1984 he married his fourth wife, Valerie, a prior acquaintance whom his dog, Debbie, found in the crowd at an outdoor concert. After the death of Sharon-Ann in 1985, Lee and Val raised their granddaughter, Jasmine. Lee had a quick sense of humour, and loved listening to football and cricket on the radio. Although a 1997 stroke curtailed his career, he never lost his excitement for music, and when listening would often move a hand as if playing. He and Val left Sydney for Moss Vale in 2000, the year he was awarded the Order of Australia Medal for services to music. He died there at the age of 97, and is survived by Val and Jasmine.