Grey and Green
The TOaG Quartet
It all started with a music teacher who needed to add some low end to her third grade orchestra. She picked the tallest kid in the room, who had his big hands wrapped around a cello at the time, and said “Hey! Take a look here, come play this upright bass!” That kid was Benjamin Lee, and once he heard the resonant tones of the largest instrument he had ever seen, he was hooked.
Born in Los Angeles, California, Ben grew up in an incredibly diverse soundscape. His first library of music was his father’s record collection, which melded Laurel Canyon sounds with classic rock, folk, jazz, soul, and spirituals. The music of James Taylor, Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, the Mamas and the Papas, Louis Armstrong, the Band, Thelonious Monk, Ella Fitzgerald, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Oscar Peterson, George Gershwin, Jelly Roll Morton, the Chieftains, the Eagles, the Who, Dave Brubeck, Art Tatum, Willie Nelson, Carol King, Oscar Peterson, Johnny Cash and Paul Simon influenced his ear at a very early age.
But as with many young upright players, his musical journey began with classical music. From the Fugue in G minor to the Firebird Suite, from John Williams to Sergei Prokofiev and Aaron Copland, Ben’s school orchestral experience took him to classical competitions in Seattle, Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles (including a performance with Mr. Williams at Disney Hall). Alongside his classical repertoire, Ben dove headfirst into an intense jazz education on both upright and electric bass.
Studying under bassists Louis Allen, Dave Culwell, John Heard, and Ivan Johnson, Ben learned how versatile the bass could be. Listening to the likes of Ray Brown, John Clayton, Charlie Haden, Ron Carter, Jaco Pastorious, Paul Chambers—and most importantly Charles Mingus—opened his ears. Climbing through the ranks of his school program, he eventually became a faculty member for the Academy of Creative Education and worked for three years with the Academy’s music department. Alongside top-shelf musicians and educators such as Matt Wrobel, Lisa Parade, Dante Pazcuzzo, Ben McIntosh, Chris Payne, Nate Lapointe, Brian Walsh, and Matt Mayhall, Ben taught young students how to understand and apply the core elements of theory, rhythm, improvisation, ear training, and musicianship.
After moving to San Diego in 2008, Ben continued his musical education by pursuing a B.A. in Jazz Performance at the University of California, San Diego. Under the mentorship of one of the most important teachers in Ben’s life—legendary pianist and sax player Kamau Kenyatta—he began composing, arranging, and recording as never before. It was during this time that he also began studying Cuban folkloric music. With the sounds of people like the great Cachao, Bebo and Chucho and Chuchito Valdez, Javier Colina, and Los Muñequitos in his head, Ben found a new musical voice that would revolutionize his playing style and color his compositions forever. Though he eventually opted to accept a minor in music in order to pursue a B.A. in Sociology, Ben decided to take his music outside the academic environment and dive deep into the San Diego music scene.
After graduation, Ben put together an impressive track record that included session work for the Swedish V. Sjoberg New Jazz Ensemble; writing and producing original music for the countless iterations of the Carranza, Carter, & Lee ensemble; the creation of and performance in the 12-piece No Name chamber group; tracking progressive rock band Manifold’s 2013 self-titled release; arranging and recording tracks for the Kellers folk band; arranging music for the San Diego Songwriters House Band; writing, arranging, performing and tracking reggae band Sunny Rude’s 2015 Rudimentary release; performing with and arranging music for Canadian/American roots duo Sister Speak; and continuing his leadership of the TOaG Collective.
In addition to having played some of San Diego’s most prestigious venues—including the Belly Up Tavern, the House of Blues, Humphrey’s by the Bay, the Hornblower flagship Inspiration, Mandeville Theater, 4th and B, The Loft, and the Conrad Prebys Concert Hall—Ben has also had the opportunity to perform and record abroad in Buenos Aires, Santiago, and Lima.
Now based in Oakland, California, Ben is performing and recording with a multitude of groups around town including the fusion jazz group The Orbital Quintet, the 18-piece Big O Big Band, Rabbit Quinn's all original piano trio, contemporary jazz quartet Wildlyfe, the psychedelic hip hop group known as the Lucy Project, the early jazz group the Apollo Trio, and the bachata sextet Felipe y Las Estrellas del Mar - to name a few. 2018 also saw the birth of The TOaG Quartet, which is a collaborative music endeavor under the direction of Mr. Lee, focusing on contemporary jazz and arts education/outreach. When he isn't on stage or in the studio, Ben stays busy teaching bass lessons and rhythm sectionals in and around Oakland and San Francisco, as well as working furiously on his own compositions. Always up for new projects, new students, and new opportunities, he wants nothing more than to travel the world in support of musicians who have a message that matters. Having devoted himself to the study of bassists like Lee Sklar, James Jamerson, Edgar Meyer, Charles Mingus, Abraham Laboriel, and Cachao, he is self-described as a player “in search of truth over a groove.” Ben believes wholeheartedly that music has the power to educate, entertain, and empower people in a way that few other things can. If you would like to know more about what Ben can contribute to your musical endeavors, you can listen to some of his projects, check out a performance, or see what people are saying about working with him.