Pianist Helen Sung: From Classical Outsider to Jazz Insider Sung reflects on how, as a young classical pianist, she stuck to her jazz dreams. More recently, she's translated her emotions on social justice into a thematic composition for her quartet.

Pianist Helen Sung: From Classical Outsider To The Jazz Inner Circle

Pianist Helen Sung: From Classical Outsider To The Jazz Inner Circle

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Ayano Hisa/Jazz at Lincoln Center

Helen Sung

Ayano Hisa/Jazz at Lincoln Center

There's a composition by pianist Helen Sung titled "Into the Unknown," from her 2018 album, Sung With Words. A bright, bustling tune with a melody full of rhythmic feints, it captures the radiant spirit that Sung brings to any bandstand. And the song's title says something about her unconventional path to a life in modern jazz.

Raised by immigrant parents in Houston, Sung showed early promise on piano — but seemed destined for classical music until her mid 20s. Pursuing improvised music took a leap of faith, but she was soon admitted to the Thelonious Monk Institute for Jazz, where she received affirmation from the masters, and began to lay the groundwork for her own career.

On this episode of Jazz Night, we'll hear Sung play "Into the Unknown" with her quartet: John Ellis on tenor saxophone, Rueben Rogers on bass and McClenty Hunter on drums. Their set, recorded at Dizzy's Club, also features tunes by (and for) Thelonious Monk, and a note of social conscience. "Jazz is such an honest art form," she says. "And so as an artist, I want to be on the side of truth."


Helen Sung, piano; John Ellis, tenor saxophone; Reuben Rogers, bass; McClenty Hunter, drums

Set List

Songs by Helen Sung unless otherwise noted

  • "Carolina Shout" (James P. Johnson)
  • "Into the Unknown" 
  • "Bye-Ya" (Thelonious Monk)
  • "Brother Thelonious" 
  • "Lament for Kalief Browder" 
  • "Hope Springs Eternally"


Writer and Producer: Alex Ariff; Host: Christian McBride; Project Manager: Suraya Mohamed; Music Engineer; Rob Macomber; Senior Producer: Katie Simon; Executive Producers: Anya Grundmann and Gabrielle Armand; Senior Director of NPR Music: Lauren Onkey.

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