The Player: Helen Sung
July 09, 2006 1

The Player: Helen Sung

Since age five Helen Sung has been playing classical piano. With a Bachelor and Master of Music degrees from The University of Texas, Austin, what is she doing playing jazz? In 1995 Helen's dream of attending a premiere program to study jazz was about to unfold instead of pursuing yet another degree. Her talent, passion and dedication to jazz got her accepted into the inaugural class of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance at the New England Conservatory of Music. Helen was also the only female of seven students in this two-year scholarship program to study and perform with some of the greatest world-renowned jazz artists. Since graduating in 1997 she is continuously progressing in all facets of her flourishing career as a jazz artist.

ASIANCE: What drew you to jazz and to make the change?

Helen: During my junior or senior year in college a friend of mine was totally in love with Harry Connick, Jr. and I didn't know who he was. He and his big band were coming to UT to do a concert. It was when When Harry Met Sally was really big and the soundtrack very successful. The big band was cool, but when he played a few solo pieces on the piano I remember thinking, "Wow." Something about the music, the sound of it, and the feel of it grabbed me. It sounded unbelievably fun. Now I can say it was the swing. It was a world I didn't know anything about, but was fascinating to me. However, what really got me was Tommy Flanagan's record called Confirmation (1982) on the Enja label. It's a trio album and he plays this tune called Confirmation. His tone, swing on this one solo hooked me after I heard that.

ASIANCE: Being a jazz musician is very much a "non-traditional" career path for Asian Americans, how did your parents take to your decision?

Helen: It was hard. It's funny they never forced me to take piano lessons like so many Asian people. They saw it was something that I was good at. I remember my mom telling people this story, which I don't remember. What I do remember is having a red plastic toy piano that had twelve keys of different colors and carrying it around with me. She says she saw me listen to the radio or watch TV and play songs on the piano I heard from the TV or radio. It was something they never forced me to do, it was something I was good at, so I guess I just did it. When they saw I was serious and wanted to do it as a career they weren't happy about that. The typical Asian parent wants you to be financially provided for in a stable profession they can understand, which they were hoping for a doctor.

It used to really upset me that they couldn't support the career I had chosen, but they can't understand because they have no experience of their own to relate it to. When I told them I wanted to switch to jazz my dad hit the roof. I just remember him lecturing me for an hour and asking what jazz is. He was very down on me in terms of my profession. He told me more than once music is not a profession it is a hobby. He would send me articles of very successful doctors who used to be music majors in college. I would get so pissed. When I finished my Masters, my dad would say you better apply for a DMA (Doctor's of Musical Arts). I was thinking about moving to New York to really pursue this jazz thing, but to partly placate my dad, I sent for information on DMA programs.

At this point they are relieved I am not homeless. It's still hard. They can understand the financial aspect of it, but they've heard me play a few years ago and they said, "You were really good." That made me feel good inside, but music is not a part of their lives. I once played a gig in Houston and I didn't officially invite them, but they knew I was doing a gig but they didn't come, which kind of hurt. They've accepted it, let's just put it that way (and I don't mean it negatively).

ASIANCE: What inspired your latest album Helenistique?

Helen: My first album Push was a reflection of what was going on with me at the time and most of it was originals. However, I've always wanted to do an album of jazz standards, it was important for me. Jazz standards are the backbone of being a jazz musician, being able to be original with them and presenting your take on them. I always find it very interesting what other musicians do with jazz standards. Everybody plays them and they are endearing kinds of pieces. It's like Bach is always part of classical music. Everyone has to be able to play them. After the first album, which was so heavy on originals I wanted to do a trio (piano, bass and drums) album. It's scary because you can't lean on a horn player; it's all you. A step further than that is solo piano, which I hope someday I hope to have the courage to do.

ASIANCE: This year you went on your first international tour as a bandleader, can you share what positive and challenging experiences you had.

Helen: It was such a short little tour, but it was a wonderful experience because most of my work has been as a sideman. As a leader, you're the one they come to, and the one when something goes wrong who has to deal with it. It's not just about the performance. You have to worry about the band, all the logistics, so I really appreciate what bandleaders go through because as a sideman you just show up, do your gig, get your money and leave. You also deal with the promoter and presenter. I was very fortunate the tour was very well done (most of them are not that nice). I was very blessed in having that be my first experience. I know it's not always going to be like that in the future. It was a huge responsibility, but still a huge thrill. Just think people are coming to hear your music.

In terms of challenges - The people that I hired were cool, but everyone has his or her own personality. You really don't get to know someone until you go on the road. It was a great experience to learn how to deal with people. You want to hold onto who you are, but you also want people to be happy. You want people to be excited about playing with you. From this tour I am learning how to balance what I want to do and the way I want to do it versus what may be best for the musicians or situation. I use to come on the bandstand and say this is what I want to have happen and if it didn't happen it would throw me. Now I realize jazz is really working with what's there at the moment. How often do you really get to play in an ideal situation? The majority of us, we're always working in so many different situations, with many different bands in many different configurations, and that's frustrating. Even with my own band, I'm often starting from zero because it's rarely the exact same personnel. Jazz is about being in the moment. You got to work with the musicians at that moment to get that groove, to find that pocket and make it work. It's learning about trusting other people too and putting yourself in their hands.

ASIANCE: What is your favorite place so far and what do you like to do when you're on the road?

Helen: When I'm on the road, I love exploring the cities. The more foreign it is, the better. I remember running around in Prague by myself not knowing the language, not knowing really anything. You talk to people, look at maps and feel a sense of accomplishment when getting there. I love Spain. Last summer I did a three-week tour there with Steve Wilson and we went everywhere. We played in Madrid, in the south, the wine country, Barcelona. I love that country.

ASIANCE: Any advice for aspiring young jazz musicians.

Helen: For younger people starting out you have to be serious about this music. If it's something you want to dabble in that's fine. The heart of jazz is swing and if you don't have that swing somewhere then I don't know. For me I wanted to swing authentically. When I got to the Thelonious Monk Institute I got my butt got kicked. I worked really hard on the swing and blues part and really wanted that to be real in my playing and in my music. I feel I'm getting a hold of it. That's really exciting for me. You really have to get to what the heart of jazz is in order to pay honor to this music. Something so beautiful was born out of something so ugly (referring to slavery), so much despair and suffering. I feel very honored to be part of it somehow, so I have much respect for the music. That's why I hope anybody going into this would approach it with that kind of respect and dedication.

ASIANCE: Congratulations on your Chamber Music of America grant. Tell us more about that.

Helen: I joined Chamber Music America a couple years ago. They had a grant for ensembles to do residencies, which I became familiar with while I was at the Monk Institute and now with JazzReach. It's great to see students in certain areas of the country who would probably never listen to jazz on their own. Hans Schumann is the Founder/Artistic Director of JazzReach and his main objective is to cultivate a future audience for jazz. Unfortunately jazz is not being presented to young people and so much is being cut out of the public school programs. If I didn't have those music programs in elementary school who knows (where I would be)?

I selected a school in Camden, NJ for my grant. The director of the school visited my church in Queens and gave a presentation on the school, which I really liked what he had to say. Camden is one of the poorest cities in America. Most of the students are endangered of being kicked out of the public school system because they aren't able to function well in that environment. They have to deal with drugs, bodily danger in their everyday lives. This school offers another alternative. The school had a student choir and seeing how much they got into it was inspiring. We will partner with them to do a whole week of jazz related activities. I want their choir to be exposed to jazz songs. They also love to choreograph, so they are going to choreograph a dance number to a piece my band is going to play. This will probably be in April 2007 since April is jazz appreciation month. Hopefully it will be a great success.

ASIANCE: Tell me a little bit about JazzReach and your involvement.

Helen: I think I've been playing with them for four years now. JazzReach has really great interactive, fun and educational programs. There are three different ones, Get Hip!, Hangin' with the Giants and Stolen Moments. Each is geared to a different audience whether for younger children or high school. Hans also wants to keep performance a very important part of JazzReach, so the jazz band on stage is called Metta Quintet. We also do records. Subway Songs is the latest (and being released this month) and such a neat concept. [Note: The album features performances inspired by the many dynamic facets of the New York City subway experience. ALL proceeds from the sale of Subway Songs go directly to JazzReach in support of the organization's committed endeavors in arts education.]

ASIANCE: Do you have a hobby or something else you enjoy outside of jazz?

Helen: I love to bake. I've turned into a baker. It's very therapeutic for me. I read this book called the Sugar Blues, so I've been really trying to keep refined sugar out of my diet and it affects baking which has so much sugar! It's such a key ingredient, so I've been experimenting with recipes and honey. It's been fun, I feel like a scientist in the kitchen.

ASIANCE: Do you feel being an Asian American female has hindered you in this competitive and predominantly African American male industry?

Helen: I will say yes and no because immediately you are different. I'm Asian and a female. There have been more than a few times I've been sitting at the piano where people will come in who have never played with me or have never met me and say, "Where's the pianist?" or they assume I'm the vocalist. I just laugh when I think about it. Of course I am not an African American male and it's always going to be that I'm not one of them and I don't mean it in a negative way. It's just different. I remember Jimmy Heath (legendary jazz saxophonist) saying to me, "What people may perceive as a disadvantage, you can use to your great advantage because you are different."

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  1. scott ballin's Avatar
    scott ballin
    July 07, 2006 Reply
    That was an excellent interview with Helen Sung. She is a tremondous talent and the jazz world can expect great things from her in the future.

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