Currently in her 30’s, pianist, bandleader, and composer Helen Sung has entertained audiences all over the world, from the White House in Washington, D.C. to Poland to the Kirkland Performance Center on Oct. 24.
A native of Houston, Texas and an Asian-American musician of Chinese heritage, Sung’s tenacity and creativity break down stereotypes, as well as boundaries between classical music and jazz.
“It was not easy making the switch from classical to jazz music,” added Sung, noting that she was very disciplined in her classical piano studies growing up. “I think when most people look at me, they think ‘classical.’”
When she was only three or four years old, Sung carried a red plastic piano around with her and played melodies on it that she heard from television and the radio. This progressed to formal piano lessons at the age of five and later on to attending Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. As kids, her two sisters and brother also took up the piano and violin. However, Sung’s passion for the piano persisted and although her parents encouraged her to take up another occupation like a doctor, she always knew she wanted to be a performer.
Sung pursued her undergraduate studies at the University of Texas at Austin, where she studied classical piano. It was not until a friend in her junior year at college encouraged her to go to a Harry Connick, Jr. concert (and hearing him play a couple of solo piano pieces), that Sung was inspired to learn more about jazz.
“When I discovered jazz I was like, ‘Whoa, what is this?’ and it hit me in a way that classical music never did,” said Sung. “Jazz was something I really took the initiative with and I dove into that world.”
Sung took quickly to the music and was the only female accepted into the 1995 inaugural class of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance (at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston), an intensive program that accepted only seven students (forming a jazz septet). The institute provided Sung with a unique opportunity to perform with a number of jazz masters, including Clark Terry, Wynton Marsalis, Jimmy Heath, Jackie McLean, Bobby Watson, Harry “Sweets” Edison, and James Moody; and study with Slide Hampton, Curtis Fuller, and others. The class toured India and Thailand with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, performed at the Kennedy Center, and presented workshops.
“[Wayne Shorter is] someone who’s so unique and has such a personal view of the world and that’s the kind of musician I really aspire to be,” said Sung. “He transcends category. I think he’s so fabulous.”
Sung also studied from Grammy award-winning bassist Ron Carter, who served as artistic director of the institute. Carter has an incredible work ethic, noted Sung, adding that he used to tell her class, “If you want a personal voice, you need to start writing music.”
After graduating from the Institute in 1997, Sung settled in Boston, working with bassist Ray Brown and teaching at the New England Conservatory of Music’s Continuing Education Program. She currently resides in New York City, where she has lived for the past 10 years, and is continuously inspired there – musically and artistically. In 2007, Sung won the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Competition. And, most recently, she toured South Africa as a musical ambassador after her project, NuGenerations, was selected as a 2009 U.S. State Department-Rhythm Road ensemble.
As part of this year’s Earshot Jazz Festival, on Saturday, Oct. 24, Sung will perform a mix of originals and standards with Reuben Rogers, on bass, and Adam Cruz, on drums. The concert will take place at 8 p.m., at the Kirkland Performance Center, 350 Kirkland Ave., Kirkland. Tickets are $30.
“The swing rhythm – there’s nothing quite like it,” Sung said, of jazz. “You’ll never get bored because it’s a journey.”
For tickets to and more information about the Earshot Jazz Festival, call 206-547-9787 or visit www.earshotjazz.org. To learn more about Helen Sung and her upcoming projects and concerts, visit www.helensung.com.