Photos courtesy of Jazzman Photography
When UMKC alumnus Ryan Lee is asked about music, he gets a faraway look in his eye and gives the impression that he is experiencing something that others miss.
“Music is energy that you can use. Music is the only thing—to me—that you can make exist. You can have nothing, and then create something and it’s an existing thing if you capture it.”
Lee seems to understand music in a way that only an artist can. Beyond the melodies, the notes and the quarter rests, Lee finds an ocean of meaning, a message and a purpose in music. Lee’s talent and passion for this art form translate to a busy schedule and a diverse repertoire.
His focus is on the drums, but he can also play the bass guitar and the piano. Progressive jazz catches his interest right now. For a drummer, this form of performance involves an electric drum pad that triggers different sounds. Think of it like a keyboard where you can change the sound each key makes. It works the same way.
In addition to his experimentation with these unique sounds, Lee is also a member of a number of groups that perform around Kansas City and the world. These groups include the Electric Tinks, The Bhus and Diverse, both led by friend Hermon Mehari. He also leads his own group called Mezzo String, formerly Strings and Things.
Music has taken Lee around the world to Japan and throughout Europe. Earlier this year, Lee traveled with musical prodigy A Bu on a music tour in China for A Bu’s album debut of which included him. He has plans to accompany the Juilliard student to Germany this fall.
Getting involved with A Bu was the result of a chance encounter in France while performing at the Jazz en Tete in 2014. Lee was asked to stay an extra five days to play with the young musician. Requests to play on his recordings and to perform live soon followed.
Music is in his family’s blood, Lee says.
“My whole family is musical,” he says.
In church, Lee would watch the drummer and then pick up sticks and play the drums after the service. He acknowledges that he had a natural talent for music and, specifically, for the drums, but that he didn’t begin cultivating that talent until later.
“My interests were in other things. I love to draw. I love to do blueprints of houses and buildings. I love showing all of the angles. I spend a lot of time doing that.”
In fourth grade, Lee came back to the drums when he joined the drill team and played the snare drum. In junior high, he played the clarinet and the bass clarinet and eventually joined a clarinet quartet.
Initially, Lee wasn’t sure of his plans following high school graduation. But after an audition with Bobby Watson, he decided to attend the Jazz Studies program at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance.
The program introduced him to the history of music and various classes themed around jazz, classical or other genres.
“I appreciate that I have that foundation now. I wouldn’t have studied it on my own. It was a good learning experience.”
For the future, Lee has big plans for his music and beyond. He is currently working on a website database intended to feature instrument makers and other members of the music business who are stationed locally (mezzoplace.com). The site, currently under construction, will be a hub to link musicians, instrument makers and others.
“What I’ve learned about traveling the world is that there is amazing talent everywhere. But in other cities, there seems to be a connection like no other. My website’s purpose is to shine light on the amazing geniuses here and put that force out.”