By Ann Meier Baker and Paulette Beete
Helen Sung’s life in music started with a red toy piano. As Sung recalled in a recent interview with NEA Director of Music and Opera Ann Meier Baker, “Somehow, this little red plastic piano showed up. It had about 12 keys and they were multi-colored, and I carried it around with me under my arm.” According to family lore, Sung’s mother would hear the budding musician playing melodies she’d heard on the radio. Sung’s father tells the story of Sung one day insisting to him, “I need more keys.” After starting both piano and violin lessons at age 5, she went on to enroll at Houston’s Performance and Visual Arts High School. Although she was classmates with the likes of stellar jazz musicians, such as pianist and Kennedy Center Artistic Director for Jazz Jason Moran, Sung’s interest was strictly in classical music. As she remembered with a laugh, “The classical room and the jazz room were literally across the hall from each other, and I did not have a single interaction.” After a transformative experience at a jazz concert which left Sung “feeling like I’d been struck by lightning,” Sung switched her musical focus, eventually selected to be part of the inaugural class of the renowned—and highly competitive—Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz. Today Sung is not only the leader of her own quartet, but she’s also helping to shape the next generation of jazz musicians while continuing to refine her own voice in the genre. “Learning how to swing, that’s hard and it’s something that I’ll chase for the rest of my life,” she said. Here in her own words is Sung on taking the leap from classical music to jazz, why she doesn’t think you can teach anyone to play jazz, and the women who’ve inspired her career. (Catch her performing live as one of the performers at the free 2018 NEA Jazz Masters concert on April 16. Details here.)
On finding her way to jazz
I [earned my] classical undergraduate degree at the University of Texas at Austin…. The general plan, it seemed to me from observing my peers and people who were older, was that you eventually got your graduate degree and found a teaching position at a university. I remember having this fleeting thought: “Is this the life I really want?” It seemed like the general message was that [only playing music] was a very rare, almost impossible, goal, and so we will do a combination [of teaching and playing]. That’s the best you can hope for. One day [a friend] said, “Let’s go hear Harry Connick, Jr. He’s coming to town.” I didn’t know who he was. She said, “Oh, he’s a talented singer, a pianist. He’s really cute.” We went, and yes, he’s very cute. He had his big band with him and he was very charming, and they were very entertaining. In the middle of the concert, he sat down and played some solo jazz piano pieces. I didn’t know what it was called back then, but [now I know] it was in the stride Professor Longhair New Orleans style. I remember feeling like I had been struck by lightning. First of all, it’s like, “How come no one told me about this?” And number two is, “I didn’t know you were allowed to play the piano like that.” And third, was like, “Gosh, how do you do that?”
I enrolled in this Beginning Jazz Piano class [with some other classical pianists]. After the class was over everybody was like, “Oh, that was fun.” But I was, like, “Man, I want to find out more about this music.” So I went to the music library and checked out books, and luckily, they were good books: Notes and Tones by Art Taylor, Meet Me at Jim and Andy’s by Gene Lees, and The Great Jazz Pianists by Len Lyons. I started checking out whatever recordings the library had, and then I stalked the Jazz Piano professor until he agreed to give me lessons…. Because the Jazz Department was still very young at [the university], I was thrown in the deep end of the pool, and I think that was the best way. Because otherwise, I would’ve just been so tentative and insecure. Because, you know, how do you play music without notes? It wasn’t like I was thinking, “Forget classical.” But I fell in love with jazz music, and then, day by day, you make this choice and that choice, and when I got into the Monk Institute, that was what sealed the deal for me.
On teaching the next generation of jazz musicians
I don’t know that I can really teach anyone how to play jazz. People say, “Jazz is a language,” and you think about how you teach someone to speak. You can teach them the mechanical things—grammar, vocabulary, spelling—but in the end, everybody has to find their own way of speaking because we’re all unique. How each of us speaks is really influenced and part of who we are, and I feel like jazz music is that way. I think of my role as a teacher more as [being] a guide. It’s just that I have more experience, and I teach from that experience. I remember when I first was asked to teach at Juilliard and feeling so like, “What? How did this happen?” A colleague reminded me,” Teach what you know.” And I really think that’s all that can be done. That’s what my jazz teachers did. They showed me what they did, and I had to take that in. I had to run with that. That’s not where it ends. So that’s how I try to teach: “This is what I did, but you need to find your own way in that.”
One of the great things about being an artist and one of the most frustrating things is there’s really no formula. Everybody’s path is so different. A guiding principle that I have and what I tell people is to always protect the art. Meaning the practicing, of course, developing your craft, being curious, cultivating the creative, the spiritual, the imagination, all that. Because the mechanics of life—paying your bills or even the business of the music—it can easily become overwhelming. [I tell my students,] “You have to find your own way because you’re different than me and our temperaments, personalities, what we handle, how we handle things is different.” As long as you protect the art, as in my experience, things seem to fall into place better.
On starting the Helen Sung Quartet and being a leader
I felt like I had to become a leader out of necessity. I needed opportunities to play, and so I had to create them. I can, like anybody, complain about this or that. But on my more clear and better days, I have to be so thankful just to be doing what I’m doing. I never I thought I would write music. That’s nothing that ever entered my mind. [When I was at the Monk Institute], [NEA Jazz Master] Ron Carter would see us once every two weeks, and he would say, “You want to develop a voice, you need to write your own music.” So we had to write a new piece, ready for every time he came, and we would play it in class. He would critique it, and that was such an invaluable experience. I had so much catching up I needed to do, and so the fact that I’m writing and using music that I like and people like, I feel like I’m the luckiest person in the world. But [being a leader is] so much work, having to create opportunities and making records. That’s another huge adventure every time, but I love it.
On being a woman in jazz
I think my approach has been, generally, that I didn’t want to make gender an issue. I wanted my art to speak for itself. At the root of everything is to be the best artist I can be…. and to be out there performing and doing great projects first and foremost. I’ve had so many people—and I’m sure all my peers would say the same— [tell me] “You play like a man” or “I thought you were a man.” I would always take it as a compliment because I think it’s great when people love what you do. If I didn’t get picked for certain opportunities or felt passed over, I just never wanted to think, “Oh, it’s because I’m a woman,” because I don’t think it’s helpful. I think music is part of the world where we’re participating in the divine. There’s magic in music. I really believe that if things don’t happen a certain way or if I don’t get opportunities that I really, really, really want, it’s going to be okay. Because if I keep the art pure, if I protect the art, then I will get the things that I need.
But I think we’re in a really interesting time…. and I want to be a part of that movement to create a better place for women in jazz. How can we find a way to have a healthier environment, and also, what is my part?… I really take inspiration from people like Mary Lou Williams, [NEA Jazz Master] Marian McPartland. I mean I can’t imagine what it was like for [NEA Jazz Master] Toshiko Akiyoshi. I consider those three the real true pioneers. They’ve paved the way just by hanging in there. I think longevity in this field is not something to be taken for granted. I needed to see other women in the field and succeeding and doing well just to know that it’s possible.
Helen Sung will be one of several stellar musicians joining us for the 2018 NEA Jazz Masters Concert celebrating the transformative careers of Todd Barkan, Joanne Brackeen, Pat Metheny, and Dianne Reeves. Find out how you can join the celebration live in Washington, DC at the Kennedy Center or online at arts.gov here.