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George Lee, jazz icon and mentor passes away 9/22/2008

George Lee, a jazz legend who passed away on Tuesday morning in his Johannesburg home, was a larger-than-life personality who devoted his life to mentoring young artists in the finer details of the jazz idiom in particular and African music in general.
Two years ago he was diagnosed with a terminal motor neuron disease ( Lou Gehrig’s), a paralyzing condition that left him wheelchair-bound. Before this affliction, which disables the body but leaves the mind intact, one was struck upon meeting the Ghanaian-born saxophonist, songwriter and band leader by his imposing height and warm personality.
These attributes earned him the nickname Big G — a real gentle giant who often left behind fond memories with those who crossed his path. Musically, he was also a giant.
A highlight of his stay in South Africa was a memorable performance in Cape Town during the World Festival of Sacred Music to mark the Dalai Lama’s visit and the dawn of the new millennium.
Born Kwame Narh Kojo Larnyoh on 8 January 1938 in Ghana, George Lee was raised on the swing jazz of American big bands personified by Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Louis Jordan and Duke Ellington.
So profound were his talents that his namesake, then head of state, the late Kwame Nkrumah, appointed him Ghana’s cultural emissary when he was barely 25.
As a songwriter, composer, arranger and stage director, his international career has been phenomenal. Thanks to his music’s global appeal, his compositions have been recorded by artists around the world, including the late South African expatriate, Chris McGregor, and the late saxophonist Mike Makhalemele.
Despite his reputation as a jazz man, he was highly versatile; he wrote music for the South African run of a classic Wole Soyinka play, and for an award-winning stage production by Khaba Mkhize, to mention just two examples of his theatrical contributions. He even featured in the Hollywood movie A Good Man In Africa, starring Sean Connery.
His versatility shone through in his collaboration with reggae icon Bob Marley. He worked extensively with Marley as a session musician and horns arranger. He also toured with Toots & The Maytals and Johnny Nash, when the latter’s hit, I Can See Clearly Now, was topping the charts.
Since 1990 he had lived in South Africa. One of his famous protégés, guitarist Jimmy Dludlu, joined his band, Anansi, in the late 1980s. In South Africa he was instrumental in shaping another young jazz lion’s future, guitarist Selaelo Selota. Just weeks before his death, Channel O pledged to honour him with a Special Recognition Award at the channel’s annual Music Video Awards ceremony set for 9 October 2008.
He was cremated on Friday in a private ceremony. A memorial service will be held this afternoon from 3pm at 22 1st Avenue, Houghton. He is survived by his wife, Andrea, and children Michelle, Paul, Mark, John-Paul and Simone.

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