Jazz coach Helen Sung grew up in Houston playing classical piano and violin and received her bachelor’s and master’s in classical piano at the University of Texas at Austin. While she was there, a friend took her to see Harry Connick Jr. “He and his big band were very entertaining,” she recalls, “but in the middle of the show he sat down at the piano and played some solo pieces. I was transfixed —“I didn’t know you were allowed to play the piano like that!” She signed up for Intro to Jazz classes and read and listened to everything she could about and by jazz artists, convinced a skeptical jazz piano professor to give her lessons, and gradually took all of UT’s jazz courses. But it was being accepted into the Thelonious Monk Institute at the New England Conservatory that “sealed the deal,” she says. “I was going to go for it and try to be a jazz musician.” And now she’s living that dream, performing, touring , recording, composing and teaching. The only downside? The Queens resident loves animals but all that traveling makes having pets difficult.
Tell us about your background in classical music.
I was fortunate to attend public schools with strong arts programs like Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, where so many of today’s leading artists graduated from: like Chris Dave, Jason Moran, Eric Harland, Robert Glasper, Kendrick Scott—it’s really remarkable. I was a classical piano student, played violin in the school symphony, and amazingly never had any interaction with the jazz department.
What have been some of the most fun and most challenging aspects of the classical-to-jazz transition?
Two of the best are: 1) learning how to improvise and make music with others in the moment and 2) finding out I could actually compose music and really enjoyed doing so! Two of the most challenging things: 1) learning how to swing, how to improvise, and how to comp! and 2) persevering in the face of my family thinking I had made a horrible mistake, first to study music and then to switch to…jazz?
Tell us about the musical mentor who most inspired you.
I’ve been lucky to have several artists who have mentored and continue to inspire me. One is Clark Terry—he could swing a whole room with just two notes, he had a personal style and an instantly recognizable sound, he gave me my first serious a**-kicking on stage, he hired me to play in his bands, and he was a class act from beginning to end— never embittered or cynical despite the many hardships he endured and harsh difficulties he faced as an African- American in this country. His music was always full of joy, love, and humanity—just like him!
What’s a key recording that inspired you?
There are so many—one that continues to fascinate me is McCoy Tyner’s The Real McCoy.
What are your nonmusic interests?
I love baking and make the world’s best brownies. Stargazing and astronomy are awesome—especially meteor showers (Perseids are my favorite).
What’s the secret to balancing performing and teaching?
Always protect the art—the daily discipline of nurturing the creative processes of practicing/listening/composing and playing/performing. If that’s my top priority, everything else seems to fall into place better.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
That I can trash-talk about sports with the best of ’em, and oh, can I remind everyone that the Houston Astros are the World Series champs?
Any meal, prepared by anyone—what is it?
My mom’s Chinese chicken dish!
Do you want to say anything about women in jazz?
I humbly offer some things I’ve learned in my journey thus far: being a woman in jazz is something to be celebrated and proud of, but when I feel passed over professionally, it’s not helpful to believe that’s the reason why. I want to be on the playing field with the “boys” but am proud of being a “girl” with something unique to offer. I have to stay focused on my vision (to be a great artist with my own voice) and motivation (because I love this music!). There are no shortcuts to mastery—Jimmy Heath once said: if you BS your way in, you’ll have to BS the rest of the way through—and great perseverance is needed. I’m blessed to have good friends and my Christian faith to encourage me when life is tough. I also think of trailblazing women jazz instrumentalists—like Mary Lou Williams, Geri Allen, Marian McPartland, Toshiko Akiyoshi—and am inspired by their artistry, gutsiness, and persistence. We can’t control the time or place we are born into, but we can make the most of the circumstances that come our way with creativity, passion, and humanity.
Tickets to hear the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra play music by Mary Lou Williams are available for $30 or less. To read about more Juilliard women in jazz, see the Journal's spotlight on Sharel Cassity