Monterey Jazz Festival

'Round Midnight: A Late-Night Conversation With Helen Sung

Helen Sung at the Monterey Jazz Festival. i i

Helen Sung at the Monterey Jazz Festival. John Whiting for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption John Whiting for NPR
Helen Sung at the Monterey Jazz Festival.

Helen Sung at the Monterey Jazz Festival.

John Whiting for NPR

Shortly after midnight on Friday at the Monterey Jazz Festival, I sat down with pianist and composer Helen Sung. She had just played her third and final set of the night in the Coffee House, the Festival's most intimate venue, with her trio of bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Marvin "Smitty" Smith. We heard original compositions, rearrangements of two Monk tunes, and "The Song Is You," with an ending that skipped and danced around the room. It was smart, beautiful, elegantly-crafted piano trio music.

A woman seated behind me saw me taking notes, tapped me on the shoulder, and said, "Are you reviewing this? Make sure it's a good review."

Sung's bio on her website notes that she "initially aspired to be a classical pianist but was bitten by the jazz bug (specifically by Tommy Flanagan's solo on Charlie Parker's 'Confirmation') while at the University of Texas at Austin." I wondered about that during her performance, so that's where we started.


Pamela Espeland: What was it about that particular Tommy Flanagan solo that did it for you?

Helen Sung: The initial thing that got me about jazz was the feeling of the swing — how it makes you move. I never had that experience playing classical music. Tommy Flanagan is so refined, and his touch is so sterling, and there's that swing. And the beauty of his improvisation, and how logically it unfolded. I thought, "Man! If I could play like that, kind of, one day, that would be so great!" But jazz is such a generous art form — it influences everything, and it can accept so many things and still retain what it is. And that's what I hope to do with my music: Have that ... I don't want to say "authentic," that's a scary word ... that core, that foundation, of swing. I chased the swing for a long time.

PE: What do you mean, you "chased the swing"?

HS: I couldn't swing at first! I'd tape myself at gigs and get all depressed. I'd say to myself, "It doesn't feel right, it doesn't feel right!" That was my focus for a long time.

PE: Was hearing that solo really the moment when everything changed for you, or is that more of a good story?

HS: It really made me want to study and get into jazz. But what got me taking jazz in the first place was, a friend of mine at [the University of Texas] said, "We've got to go hear Harry Connick, Jr." I didn't know who he was. She said, "Don't worry, he's very handsome, you'll dig him." Ha ha ha! So we went, there was a big band, he sang, it was wonderful, but in the middle of the concert he sat down and played a couple of solo pieces. I remember thinking, "What? He's breaking all the rules I've been taught to follow so carefully all my life!" But the music just grabbed me, and I thought, "Man, I have to find out more about this."

So my friend and I and a couple of other classical majors all enrolled in a beginning jazz piano class. I think they had a good time, but jazz grabbed me in a way that classical never did. I had to find out more about it, and I begged the piano professor to give me lessons, and the Tommy Flanagan album was one of many he gave me to listen to.

PE: Were you a child prodigy?

HS: Nooooo!

PE: Did you start playing really early?

HS: I started when I was five.

PE: So you were studying from the time you were five. Were you really into it?

HS: I was. People ask me, "Why music?" This might be a weird thing to say, but I knew music was something that would hold my interest for the rest of my life. It would kick my behind on any given day, while with anything else, I got bored eventually. My parents really wanted me to be a doctor. I was a big disappointment. Ha!

PE: Did they have a fit when you took the jazz path?

HS: Yes! They did. They were not happy with the classical thing, but at least it was something they had a frame of reference for, and all their friends. Classical music was acceptable. Understandably, they weren't happy; I came at the end of my undergraduate studies and told them I wanted to study jazz, and it was like, "WHAT?!!"

PE: You didn't know much about jazz at the time.

HS: I didn't, and it was such a shame, because I went to the high school in Houston [HSPVA] that so many of the young jazz musicians went to — Robert Glasper, Jason Moran, Eric Harland, Kendrick Scott. We were right across the hall from each other, but we had no contact. Or I made no effort, unfortunately. So I think the only jazz I heard was probably on Sesame Street or Charlie Brown.

PE: Did you feel you had massive amounts of catching up to do?

HS: Oh, yes!

PE: Do you feel like you're still catching up?

HS: Yes, but I'm not drowning anymore. I'm treading water. Ha ha!

PE: Your composition "Touch" was inspired by a poem by Dana Gioia. Do you read poetry?

HS: That's a new thing. I read the amount I was forced to in high school, and I always felt like I never quite understood it. Dana Gioia encouraged me. He said, "Don't worry, it's not about literal understanding so much; it comes at you sideways. Just read it and hear the sounds."

When I tried to imagine a melody or rhythm with the words, it helped me get the poem in a deeper way. So I thought, "Let me see if I can do this." I've now written a 10-piece thing I hope to record pretty soon. Music and words, with different vocalists singing. Poetry by Dana Gioia, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Emily Dickinson, R.S. Gwynn, Gertrude Stein.

PE: What did jazz give you that classical didn't?

HS: Jazz engaged all of me, because it's everything. It's the whole technique thing, but it's also the whole improvising thing, which is magical and mysterious. And the whole sense of playing with people, because it's so different from classical music, where everyone has their own parts and it's very well-defined. With jazz, you're making music on the spot. That's something I had to learn, and I still struggle with it sometimes, because with classical music, it's "This is how it should go."

With jazz, even when it's not going exactly how I want it to, that's okay. You have to bend at that moment, and make something at that moment, and ideally, that happens in every moment. So it engages my entire being. Brain, spirit, heart, soul. I think jazz has made me a better person, because you have to deal with yourself.

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