The prominent American composer (and somewhat less prominent jazz fusion flutist) Thomas Oboe Lee was born in China in 1945. At the age of 15, he left China for South America, staying half a dozen years in Brazil and then permanently moving to the United States in 1966. After taking an undergraduate degree (B.A., not in music) from the University of Pittsburgh, he entered the New England Conservatory, where he studied composition with Gunther Schuller, George Russell, and William Thomas McKinley. Each impacted Lee's own music-making in important ways (Schuller has been instrumental in the publication of several Lee works). He spent a summer at Tanglewood during the mid-'70s, and then from 1977 to 1981 was at work on a doctorate at Harvard University. A series of awards and fellowships earned by Lee during the 1980s helped bring him to national and international attention: among them are MacDowell Colony Fellowships in 1981 and 1983, first prize at the Kennedy Center Friedham Awards in 1983, Guggenheim Fellowships in 1983 and 1986, and the American Academy in Rome's Rome Prize Fellowship for 1986 - 1987. He was, in addition, featured in a 1984 Esquire magazine article honoring dynamic American men and women under 40 years of age. In 1990, after nearly a decade of life as an independent composer, Lee settled down to a job on the faculty of Boston College. He has formed an outlet for his jazz flute inclinations with the band Departed Feathers, which also happens to be the name of the label under which his serious music is published (some in conjunction with G. Schirmer or Gunther Schuller's Margun music).
Thomas Oboe Lee has proven a very prolific composer. He has four symphonies to his name and a number of miscellaneous orchestral pieces that aren't quite tone poems, but do not fall easily into any other category. Titles invoking mythology or traditional Latin nomenclature -- like Euridice, Jubilatus, Cavatina Cavadini, String Quartet No. 3 (...Child of Uranus, father of Zeus), or Flauta Carioca -- are common throughout his catalog. Other pieces, like the chamber work The Mad Frog for oboe, bass clarinet, and harp, or I've Got the Munchies for violin duo, bass clarinet, and vibraphone, go by more fanciful names. Those few of Lee's pieces that are assigned traditional, basic names -- like the symphonies -- seem almost invariably to bear pictorial or literary subtitles: Fallen Angels for Symphony No. 1 of 1993 - 1995, A Phantasmagorey Ballet for 1998's Symphony No. 2, the ambitious War and Peace for Symphony No. 4 of 2001. Lee loves the string quartet and has also written better than a dozen pieces for singer or singers and ensemble, one of which is the chamber opera Unmasked (1990). Several major organizations, including Amnesty International, the Koussevitsky Foundation, and the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston, have commissioned works from Lee and with more and more performing bodies -- like the American and Kronos quartets and the American Jazz Philharmonic -- jumping onto the Lee bandwagon, there seems little chance that he will slow the pace of his pen in the near future.