Consuela Lee, a jazz pianist who fought to establish an arts school for children in rural Alabama on the grounds of the moribund academy founded by her grandfather, died Dec. 26 in Atlanta, where she had lived since 2007. She was 83.
Her death was confirmed by her daughter, Monica Moorehead; her mother had Alzheimer’s disease, she said.
Ms. Lee was a classically trained pianist who recorded distinctive arrangements of compositions by Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and others, playing in a style influenced by the likes of Mary Lou Williams and Art Tatum. She studied music at Fisk University in Nashville and Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and had a long career teaching theory and composition at historically black colleges including Alabama State University, Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), Talladega College and Norfolk State University.
By the late 1970s Ms. Lee had returned to her hometown, Snow Hill, just south of Selma, Ala., determined to awaken the legacy of her grandfather William J. Edwards.
In 1893, armed with a degree from Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, Edwards had founded a log-cabin school in one of Alabama’s poorest areas. . By 1918 the school, known as the Snow Hill Institute, owned 24 buildings on more than 1,900 acres and had between 300 and 400 students pursuing both academic subjects and vocational training. Edwards retired a few years later, but the school survived until 1973.
Ms. Lee’s notion was to resurrect the spirit of her grandfather’s enterprise by creating a performing arts school for local black children. For the right to open the school, she negotiated with the Wilcox County Board of Education, which operated the buildings on a 10-acre tract of the former campus that is owned by the state. What became known as the Springtree/Snow Hill Institute for the Performing Arts opened in June 1980, running daily after-school music programs and summer programs for nearly a quarter-century.
Consuela Edmonia Lee was born in Tallahassee, Fla., on Nov. 1, 1926, but grew up mostly in Snow Hill, graduating from the Snow Hill Institute. Her father, Arnold W. Lee, was a cornet player and the band director at Florida A & M University. Her mother, Alberta G. Lee, was a classical pianist and teacher.
“When I got to Fisk, and this was the odd thing about black colleges, they didn’t want us to play jazz, which they thought quite a cut below Bach, Beethoven and Chopin and the boys,” Ms. Lee told The New York Press in 2001. “They wanted us to concentrate on the Europeans. Of course we’d play jazz anyway.”