You hear a lot about the original students of Jeet Kune Do, but there is one in particular that is very special to me, my sifu, James Yimm Lee. He was the original ORGINAL student of JKD. I will always keep his memory alive for he was one of the major players and developers of Jeet Kune Do. I notice that in documentaries about JKD and or Bruce Lee, that very little if anything is mentioned about James Lee. He died forty years ago, just a few months before Bruce passed away. It seems to me that some people in JKD act like he never existed. He did exist, and he was a major part in the development of Jeet Kune Do, and this is his story. If you are one of my staff or members in JKD, this is about YOUR lineage also.
James Lee was the part of the the Chinese-American group who called themselves the “three musketeers.” In this threesome was also Allen Joe and George Lee (both still living). They lived in the Oakland area and were gung fu practitioners when they discovered Bruce Lee in Seattle. Eventually they formed a life long relationship with Bruce when started training under him. In those days it was known as “Jun Fan Gung Fu”, which was the predecessor to what later became renamed as Jeet Kune Do. Bruce and the “three musketeers” would take turns going back and forth between Seattle and Oakland for their gung fu training.
In 1964 Bruce and Linda got married, and on their wedding day, they flew from Seattle and moved to Oakland. James picked them up at the Oakland airport, and Bruce and Linda moved in with James Lee at his home in Oakland. James’ wife had died earlier, and he still had kids in the home. James’ house was built on a hill and had three levels. The ground level was the large garage, which was James’ gung fu training room, the second level was a small apartment (where Bruce and Linda lived), the top tier was the living area of the house. James was a welder in the shipyards, Linda kept the house, cooking, etc, and Bruce’s job was to operate the gung fu school and develop new combat techniques. Thus the beginning of the Oakland “fighting school.”
It was during this time period that Bruce had the infamous fight with Wong Jack Man in Oakland. At this time Bruce and James had a small store front kwoon in Oakland. The traditional kung fu instructors in the Bay area took offense that Bruce was teaching non-chinese students, and sent an ultimatum to Bruce Lee (via Wong Jack Man and his entourage) to cease immediately. Wong told Bruce that if he didn’t stop teaching non chinese now, that he would come back and make him stop. To Wong’s dismay Bruce accepted the challenge and then said, “why wait, lets fight now.” James then slipped to the kwoon door and LOCKED IT, so no one from Wong’s group could leave. Keep in mind, James Lee had the reputation of being a major gung fu badass in his own right. He was 20 years older than Bruce, and had been a Sil Lum and Iron Palm instructor for years before he even met Bruce Lee. But this was Bruce’s fight, and a very pregnant Linda was there also. Bruce whipped Wong Jack Man, and the traditional gung fu people in the area left him alone.
Bruce was upset with himself after the fight. He realized that using his traditional gung fu, it took him longer than he thought to defeat Wong. He realized at that point, he had to get out of his “classical mess”, and reevaluate his gung fu. Thus this was the beginning of what we now know as JEET KUNE DO, the blending of Wing Chun, boxing, and fencing.
Professor Wally Jay, the founder of “Small Circle JuJitsu,” was a close friend of James Lee, since they were both martial artists in the Oakland area for many years. I had the good fortune to meet Wally Jay at a martial arts events several years ago. He knew me as one of James’ JKD students and we took the time to talk in depth about our mutual friend, James Lee. Wally was a wealth of JKD history because he hung out a lot with Bruce and James. Wally told me that almost every evening, when James would get home from working all day in the shipyards, Bruce would be waiting for him. Wally said that after they ate supper, Bruce and James would go downstairs to the garage and spend hours developing JKD. Bruce and James would work hard, fight hard, slamming each other against the walls. During the day Bruce would develop new techniques and formats, and try them out on James that night. James was one tough guy. Do you think that you could hold out working out with Bruce Lee every evening for hours?
Professor Jay then told me something that was surprising. He said, “you’re lucky you trained with James instead of Bruce.” He went on to say that Bruce was the innovator but James was the teacher, the organizer. He said that, “Bruce bounced off the walls, like any genius, and that Bruce really didn’t have the patience for teaching.” He added that “everyone back then knew that if you really wanted to learn JKD, you went to James Lee.” As well as knowing all the JKD that Bruce Lee knew, he was the “teacher.”
In the 1960’s I was a college student, working my way through school teaching Goju karate under Hanshi Lou Angel. I would watch Kato on the TV show “Green Hornet” and was very impressed with this Bruce Lee guy. I wanted to learn his martial art, this gung fu he was doing on TV, but he was a big time Hollywood star and I was just a young college student in Oklahoma. What chances would that every happen?
Fate, being as it is, made it happen. When I was in Vietnam, read a “Karate Illustrated” magazine (sister magazine to Black Belt), and in it was an article titled, “Special Gung Fu Training Devices.” It was about the various JKD equipment that James Lee had in his garage, and of course about JKD.” I never heard of James Lee at that time, but it was very obvious he was one of the main people in Bruce Lee’s JKD…..and he was in Oakland. The significance here is that after my tour in Vietnam, my next duty station was going to be in the Bay area. Okay, here it is, JKD, in my backyard, Yes! I had his address obtained for me from the Oakland phone book, and I send him a letter, begging for the opportunity to train with him in JKD. After about a month or so (mail moved slow back then, especially to and from Vietnam), I received a large envelope from him. He sent me several JKD items (which I still have), but most important was a hand written letter from him, advising me that he hand selects his students, that his JKD classes were exclusive, but that I seemed to be “serious and open minded.” He gave me his phone number and told me to call him when I returned back to the states. Yea! Double Back Flips!
The day after I got back from Vietnam, I called James Lee. The following day I was sitting in his living room. He asked me many questions trying to determine if he wanted me for a student. I was a karate instructor, and James and Bruce evidently had past issues trying to teach karate people. I understood where he was coming from. I was there a total of around three hours. After the inquisition, he took me downstairs to the garage. WOW! There it was. This was the same garage where Bruce Lee worked out everyday, the place where JKD was developed, the same equipment Bruce trained on, and I was standing there with his workout partner. James showed me how each piece of equipment worked. My expectations of being accepted were getting high. Did I make the cut? The anticipation was killing me. We went back up stairs. Now its time for the decision. Whoa, not yet! Now he explained to me why all the clutter was in his house. There were dozens and dozens of spiral notebook pages, laying all around on everything in his house. On many of them were black and white photos taped to the pages. He said that he was finishing up a book that Bruce started before he left for Hong Kong. Bruce gave it to James to complete. Thus there was more history in front of me. This was the original manuscript for the book, “Wing Chun Kung Fu.” Finally he firmly;l said, “Okay, I’ll take you as a student. You’re on permanent probation and if you screw up one time, you’re OUT” as he was wagging his finger in my face, showing that he meant it. Yes, yes, yes! I was trying to be very composed and dignified, but in my mind, I was jumping up and down, fireworks were going off. I made it.
Now my Jeet Kune Do journey began. When I went to class the next week, the garage door was ¾ of the way down. Well, what do I do? He said after the interview last week not to come to the front door, to go directly to the garage. But the garage door was so far down. Is anyone there? Did he forget that I was coming? But then I heard other people behind the garage door, so I leaned down and looked under the door. Yep, there were my future class mates. They told me to crawl under the door and come on in. I was just glad to be there, but had to almost get on my hands and knees to get in. But it was like that every night. On good nights, the door may have been higher, but not much.
We had classes twice a week. James would come down the stairs in the garage, we would line up, do the JKD salutation before class, and started training non stop with no breaks. Every class had new techniques, if you missed a class, you missed a lot of cool JKD. James was a good guy, but he was task master when teaching JKD. If you didn’t pick up the material, he would leave you behind. He took no crap from students. I seen him kicked out several students while I was training there. Not only was he a great fighter, he was an outstanding teacher. He knew his JKD inside out. And he expected everyone to give 100% total effort, anything less, and you won’t be back. I learned so much about fighting from this man, and I had been a karate instructor for several years with my specialty being sparring. James would sit on his Lincoln Arc Welder against the garage wall, and watch us train on the techniques he just taught. He was like an eagle on its perch, and nothing got by him.
Having had three years of college before I went into the military, I knew the importance of keeping notes. So each night after class, I got back to my apartment and wrote down detailed notes on everything we learned that evening.
By the time I left Oakland, I had two spiral notebooks filled with notes. Thanks to the job I had in the military, I had the luxury of training 3-4 hours a day while on duty.
Oakland has the reputation as being the “fighting school” of JKD. And if you ever experienced training under James Yimm Lee, you would know why. He was one tough man. He died in December, 1972, just a few weeks after I was discharged from the military and returned back to Oklahoma. Bruce Lee died a few months later. Losing both of these great martial artists is a big loss to the JKD world, but they gave us so much while they were alive.
It is our responsibility as JKD exponents to keep the memory of James Yimm Lee in front of the martial arts community. He was a vital part of the development and history of Jeet Kune Do.
Professor Gary W. Dill
Founder, JKD Association
Grandmaster, SDS International & Bushido Kempo