Alumnus wins Grammy for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album

The Temple News

Temple alumnus Josh Lee was awarded a Grammy for his work with the Count Basie Orchestra. | FERNANDO GAXIOLA / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Josh Lee has built a prolific musical career since graduating with his master’s degree from Temple five years ago. As a member of the famed Count Basie Orchestra, Lee was recently awarded one of the highest honors a musician can receive: a Grammy award.

“I’ve been in the band for about six years now and we’ve recorded some other things too, so it’s great to see the family get recognized for some hard work,” said Lee, a 2016 jazz performance and 2019 jazz performance master’s alumnus and adjunct faculty member.

Count Basie Orchestra was awarded the Grammy for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album for “Count Basie Swings the Blues” on Feb. 4. Lee has played baritone saxophone with the renowned 17-piece jazz group for the past six years.

Lee is particularly dedicated to the history and culture of the nearly century-old band, which was founded by legendary swing musician Count Basie in 1935. Throughout its history, the ensemble has released music with legendary artists like Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra and was one of the few jazz bands to survive past the end of the big band era of the 1940s.

“I started with learning the lineage of my specific chair,” Lee said. “I play the baritone saxophone in the band and there’s been about five main baritone players in the 90-year history, and even that’s pretty deep, just trying to keep their legacy and keep their tradition going. I mean, there’s so many amazing, incredible musicians and compositions and so much history in the band.”

Lee’s entire family plays instruments, so he is no stranger to the importance of musical legacies. He first learned the saxophone from his father, and while he loves the art of music, his passion has always been maintaining the history of jazz.

That very devotion keeps Lee motivated in his work both as a musician and as a jazz history professor at Villanova University.

“I want to try to dedicate my playing and my life to make sure that history is honored for as long as possible and keep that legacy going,” Lee said.

As a Temple student, Lee would attend Philadelphia’s Vanguard Jazz Orchestra’s monthly performances to see his professors, including Terell Stafford, and other jazz powerhouses play, dreaming of one day playing alongside them. 

Lee eventually fulfilled his desire and joined the band in 2018, which Stafford said was one of his most prideful moments as a teacher.

“He’s a fantastic musician, he has incredible ears, he’s a hard worker,” Stafford said. “He is what I would want to be as a musician.”

Lee signed to Temple’s student-run record label Bell Tower Music while studying at Temple in 2017 and released his debut album, “Introducing Josh Lee and the Family,” in the same year. Lee’s baritone saxophone is accompanied by drums from Ben Singer, piano from Silas Irvine, tenor saxophone from Chris Lewis and trumpet from Matt Nelms on the six-track project.

When Jack Klotz, instructor of the Bell Tower Music class, first heard the demo, the clear style of Lee’s music stuck out to him the most. 

“I wouldn’t say he had a developed sound, but he had a clearly developing sound as a sophomore or junior, you could hear the kernel of that, which I expect is manifesting now,” Klotz said. “Like for every musician, their tone and their style is a life’s work, so it’s a progression of things, but he was definitely further along that process than you would expect.” 

Lee still performs with his personal band when he isn’t touring with the Count Basie Orchestra or teaching jazz history. Although they haven’t released music since their album with Bell Tower Music, Lee hopes to drop new songs in the future while continuing to perform with the Count Basie Orchestra.

“This is a huge honor to be in The Count Basie Orchestra, so that’s definitely one of my priorities,” Lee said. “Another one is keep my band going. It was starting to pick up the momentum, and we’re going to hopefully record some new music, some original music soon.”

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