UF professor’s new instrumental album perfectly captures the enigmatic essence of St. Pete’s Weedon Island

Scott Lee dedicated an entire work to the Pinellas County bayou.

click to enlarge UF professor’s new instrumental album perfectly captures the enigmatic essence of St. Pete’s Weedon Island
Michael Zirkle

Scott Lee, an Assistant Professor of Composition at the University of Florida School of Music, will turn 32 next month,  but he’s already done things that musicians accomplish over the course of their entire lives. Countless degrees, work experience with some of America’s finest orchestras and artists, and praise from the likes of the Philadelphia Inquirer are all on his resume. And his latest effort is no less extravagant than the said life he has led so far.

Through The Mangrove Tunnels was recorded back in 2018 with the critically acclaimed Jack Quartet (stylized “JACK”), along with Steinway pianist Stephen Beck and fellow music educator Russell Lacy on percussion. Running about 45 minutes, Lee’s new compositions salute the swamps and bayous of St. Petersburg he grew up exploring, mainly the mysterious Weedon Island.

Lee—who grew up on a canal that leads out to Riviera Bay, which borders Weedon Island—volunteered at Weedon Island in middle and high school, leading canoe trips with a naturalist in the summer for kids’ summer camps and on weekends for adult community members. Occasionally, he and other volunteers would also clear low-hanging branches from the trails to make sure the signs were visible.

"I spent a lot of time listening to the naturalist describe both the history of the island and its wildlife," Lee told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. His proximity to Rivera Bay also allowed him to explore the island outside of that context, and he often ran on the trails on the island and boating around the waterways surrounding it.

“Despite the island’s long history of encounters with humans, to the newcomer it appears to be a pristine natural landscape,” Lee writes in the album’s liner notes. Some historic encounters include an axe murder, speakeasies burning down, and a failed movie studio.

The title track, err, movement, is mainly made up of Beck’s jazzy piano backed up by the wails of a single violin. Lee had his middle school volunteer experience at the island in mind, as well as a focus on summoning flashbacks of the island’s history to reminisce about, though he wasn’t even present for most of it.

The third movement, “Narvaez Dance Club,” captures the modernization of a long-gone speakeasy. The club was originally the home of the island’s namesake, Dr. Leslie Weedon, and in the 1920s, when he sold the land to land speculator Eugene Elliott, he turned her home into a speakeasy to attract “prospective buyers.”

Though the old club wasn’t the safest place (occasional shootings, plus it eventually burned down one night), you can’t help but wonder what it would have evolved into. Perhaps it would have brought in musicians. Tommy Dorsey in the 30s, Sinatra in the 40s, maybe Donna Summer in the 70s. Boom: Music evolution at its finest.

Near the of the epic composition is the 11-minute strong “Ballad Of Willie Cole.” Within seconds, it goes from a tune up, to a Bond move chase scene, to the background music of an interrogation segment in a crime flick. Needless to say, those aren’t quite the points that Lee was going for. He was referencing a nearly 95 year-old murder story from Weedon Island. Willie Cole was a Black man who lived in Riviera Bay; he was initially believed to have murdered a Boston friend of Eugene Elliott’s by burning down a shed he was living in, and then swinging an axe. Cole, being Black in 1920s America, was the first person the local sheriff arrested, and he was later found guilty of the murder he had nothing to do with. After a retrial from the Florida Supreme Court, Cole finally walked free after two and a half years imprisoned (see p. 29 of “The Weedon Island Story,” which led Lee to Cole's story).

The gruesome details of the alleged crime—the burnt-down shack, the axe murder, the severed fingers found in the water nearby, the blasting caps, etc.—was interesting to Lee, but he also started reading old newspaper articles about Cole.

"I found that at the time the case became quite a big news story throughout the region, and elicited horrifically racist commentary that was sometimes contradictory (for example painting Cole as a criminal mastermind, while also claiming that a Black man would have needed help from a White man to commit such a heinous crime)," Lee told CL.

To Lee, reading about a Black man being falsely accused, demonized by the media, and then incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit seemed sadly still relevant to the present day, and representative of the systemic injustices that Black Americans face.

"And knowing that all of this took place so close to where I grew up that I could swim to the scene of the crime gave it special significance to me. To me 'The Ballad of Willie Cole' is the centerpiece of the work, and has an appropriately epic scope," Lee added. "The cello takes on the persona of Willie Cole, often functioning as a soloist, and his music undergoes a number of trials and tribulations over the course of the movement."

If it’s up to maestro Lee to keep the tales and perplexing history of Weedon Island alive nearly 100 years later, so be it. And with the incredibly solid assistance from Beck, Lacy, and the Jack Quartet, he really couldn’t ask for more of a professional lineup.

UPDATED: 11/20/20 5:20 p.m. Updated with comments from Lee.

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