THE LEE NEVELS STORY

In 1949, four years before he met Alene Lee, the subject of his novel "The Subterraneans," Jack Kerouac was regularly dating another young African-American girl.

She first came to light on some recordings that Jack made at the Lexington Avenue apartment of John Clellon Holmes in the Fall of 1949. Jack was scat-singing some Bop classics with his English school-friend, Seymour Wyse, and an unknown third voice. Those recordings, some twenty acetate disks, were acquired after Holmes' death by the library of Kent State University. In their description of the disks, published in 1996, reference is made to the presence of "Jack, Seymour, Lee" on some of the recordings, information garnered from the handwritten notes by Holmes on the record labels. The Kent notes add: "William Lee? - pseudonym of William Burroughs," suggesting that the third voice may have been his. However, William Burroughs was not in New York in the Fall of 1949, and having heard the recordings in question it was apparent that the third voice was that of a female, who sang solo on one recording.

The identity of the mysterious Lee continued to be unknown. I asked Seymour Wyse, now living in England, but he could not remember who it might have been.

Then, in 2004, some of Jack Kerouac's journals were published in the book "Windblown World." Jack wrote, in the fall of 1949, about going to parties at John Clellon Holmes's apartment, and meeting Seymour Wyse and an African-American girl, Lee Nevels there, and making recordings with them.

They tackled bop classics such as "Ornithology," "Groovin' High," and "Euphoria." Lee also delivered a solo version of "While You Are Gone," a song associated with Sarah Vaughan. At the same sessions Kerouac, Holmes and Wyse ("The Three Tools") recorded some a cappella riffs inspired by the work of blind bop pianist Lennie Tristano, and Kerouac read from Shakespeare's "Hamlet."

From Kerouac's journal --

"Aug. 30 to Sept. 5 [1949] Met Lee Nevels, a Negress."

"Fri. 9 [Sept., 1949] Will go see the gang -- bold noble Neal, mad Allen, haunted Lucien, sweet Seymour [Wyse], or dusky darling Lee (she of the bebop night)."

"Sept. 22-28 Saw Lee, saw [Lenny] Tristano." 

"Thurs. 20 [October 1949] Holmes and Seymour and I made some astounding 'prophetic' voice-music recordings that sound like Tristano's 'Intuition.' I did a few boyishly sad Hamlet soliloquies." 

It now seemed clear to me that the Lee on the disks was in fact an African-American girl called Lee Nevels, who was often with Jack at Holmes's apartment. 

Elizabeth Von Vogt was the sister of John Clellon Holmes, seven years his junior, and lived in an apartment above John in Lexington Avenue, New York, in the late 1940s. Her memoir, "681 Lexington Avenue: A Beat Education in New York City 1947-1954" recalls her thoughts and feelings about Kerouac when she was a 15-16 year old high school student, in 1948-49. Kerouac was a regular visitor at Holmes's apartment during that time, and Liz frequently sat in on their meetings, enjoying the jazz and mambo records they played. It's easy to gather from her writing that Liz had developed a teenage crush on Jack. Her presence was certainly noticed and appreciated by Kerouac, who wrote her into some of his books as "Bev Watson". She appears in "Book of Dreams" (pp. 200 and 224) and also in "Visions of Cody" (p. 35) in an account of what appears to have been the same dream.

In her memoir Ms Von Vogt mentions other girls in Kerouac's life at that time. She describes her emotions on entering her brother's apartment one day: 

"Jack was there with a black girl sitting up tight against him. He had his arm around her. He couldn't take his eyes off her and giggled softly in that sly, embarrassed, repressed way he had -- but this time over this beautiful brown girl he had in his arm. She was brown and exotic and sat there, strong and quiet -- a black queen, Jack's new queen. I remember her hair now as flowing and soft -- funny, I thought, for a black girl. So what? Of course, she was everything I wasn't -- confident, prettier, older -- and black, damn it! I hated her, and I had never conceived in my leftie heart of hating a Negro! But she had Jack's arm around her and his thigh against hers and his tender, pained eyes all lit up and making love to her. Damn it, those Jack-things were mine! ...  [681 Lexington Avenue, P.40] 

Lee Nevels 1949

LEE NEVELS, 1949

But who was Lee Nevels? I Googled the name and discovered that a Jesse Lee Nevels had married the jazz drummer Roy Haynes in Brooklyn, New York, in 1957. Roy Haynes was a famous drummer who had made some classic recordings in the late 1940s and early '50s with Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Miles Davis, Bud Powell, and others. Jesse Lee and Roy had three children, Graham (now a jazz trumpeter), Craig (a jazz drummer), and daughter Leslie. I managed to make contact with all three and learned more about their mother from them.

Jesse Lee Nevels was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, in December 1925. In the 1940s she had moved to New York. According to Graham Haynes, his mother moved around on the 52nd Street scene and knew many musicians there before she married Roy Haynes in 1957. He confirmed that his mother knew Jack Kerouac in the late 1940s, and that Jack had asked her to be his wife. There's a photo of them together at a Lennie Tristano concert in The Orchid Room in September 1949.

Lee Nevels with Jack Kerouac at the Orchid Room

JACK KEROUAC with LEE NEVELS and others at The Orchid Room, West 52nd St, NYC. The singer Harry Belafonte can be seen above Jack.

Graham also told me this tale about his mother and Charlie Parker:

"My mom was at a party in the east Village.The party was given by one of the Beats, I don't know who. My mom told me they worshiped Bird and this party was given for him when he was living in the east Village on 10th Street.

"Everyone was surprised when he actually showed up, but he was very ill, seated alone in a corner, going in and out of coughing fits. No one spoke to him. So my mom goes over to him and says 'Bird you really have to take better care of yourself,' and she sort of patted him on the back a little to help clear the throat. At this point he started coughing blood. He said to my mom 'Bitch! look what you made me do!'"

Many thanks to the Haynes family for sharing information about their mother and Jack. The photographs are shared courtesy of the Haynes Family Archive.

JESSE LEE NEVELS HAYNES   Dec. 4, 1925 - Sept. 1979

  Dave Moore  2021