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Helen Sung: A Force for Progress

The pianist talks about her recent Quartet+ album, which focuses on compositions by female writers, and more

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Helen Sung
Helen Sung

Jazz music really was a saving grace in my life,” says pianist, composer, and bandleader Helen Sung. She approaches the big statement with little ceremony, her characteristic earnestness and matter-of-fact tone making an idea that would sound clichéd coming from almost anyone else feel true. It is true, and Sung’s story explains why. But just as interesting is the way that the same thing happens in her music: She rejuvenates well-worn ideas, from her ability to combine jazz and classical music in unexpected ways to her resolute embrace of the freshest possible take on swing. She sees them not as shortcuts, but as sources of inspiration—fuel for her relentless curiosity.

“I feel like in current writing or criticism, there seems to be a division,” she says. “On one side, people see swing as authentic jazz, whereas the other side sees people who love to swing as being outdated and behind the times. That’s one thing I’m sad about.”

Both of those skills are evident on Sung’s ninth studio album, Quartet+, released in the fall of 2021. She features swing throughout, reimagining Billy Taylor’s “A Grand Night for Swinging”—which she first heard on a Mary Lou Williams recording—on two different tracks, and presenting a blistering take on Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz theme, “Kaleidoscope,” as well as a groovier one of Toshiko Akiyoshi’s “Long Yellow Road.”

Her classical bona fides are on display via her arrangements for and collaboration with the Harlem Quartet, a Grammy-winning string quartet. Alongside her own quartet, which includes saxophonist and flutist John Ellis, bassist David Wong, and drummer Kendrick Scott, they sound bright but never saccharine, clean and crisp but never sterile. “There’s no sound like Helen’s sound,” Scott says.

“Now, she understands that she’s an integral part of making this music breathe on its own,” says her former teacher Ron Carter. “She will be a very important person to hear whenever you get a chance to hear her.”

But Sung also expands her reach on Quartet+, building out the answers to a new set of questions. The album is almost exclusively made up of works by women pianist-composers, including Geri Allen, Carla Bley, and Sung herself; Sung co-produced it along with violinist, composer, and bandleader Regina Carter. 

“I’ve always thought, ‘Well, the music should just speak for itself,’” says Sung, affecting a pompous voice and then cracking up as she explains why she has often avoided talking about how being a woman has or has not impacted her career. “But I’m realizing that’s a little naïve. Now that I’m older, I feel like I need to deal with these things—especially because there are young ladies who are looking up to me. I feel the weight of that. It sounds corny, but I want to be a force for good and for progress.” 

Helen Sung
Helen Sung

Placing herself within a lineage of women jazz pianists and composers is the beginning of that inquiry, not the end point: just one way in which Sung has gradually been widening the focus of her well-established career in jazz. She is a 2021 Guggenheim Fellow, working on a suite of big-band compositions dedicated to some of the jazz legends she has learned from, a group that includes Ron Carter, Jimmy Heath, Wynton Marsalis, and Clark Terry, among others. She’s preparing for a digital residency with Chamber Music America, in which she will feature a poet, a DJ, and an installation artist—all of whom identify as part of the Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. The residency is Sung’s artistic response to the hate crimes against the AAPI community in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. She is also working on compositions with dancer and neuro-rehabilitation researcher Miriam King for a program specifically designed for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients as an extension of her collaborations as the jazz artist in residence at Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute, a neuroscience and brain behavior research group.

That slice of Sung’s busy 2022 is all to say that after years of honing her craft, the pianist has now reached a place where she feels not just ready to reach outward, but like she must do so to keep growing—using the same meticulous process she did to learn the music in the first place. Sung has never been afraid to say she’s new to something. After all, she was new to jazz once, at a point when most of her peers were already deep in their training.

“A lot of my projects, especially early on, were just based on things that I felt like I had to do,” she says. “Like, ‘Okay, I have to prove that I can play standards.’ Or ‘Okay, I need to show my classical and jazz background.’”

Now, her priorities are just shifting slightly.

“Of course, I want my projects to be the best music that I can produce, at the highest caliber—whatever that means for me. But I want the music to touch people. I want the music to serve people, in ways just as basic as making them feel good for the evening.”

That was how Sung’s jazz journey began. She went to see Harry Connick, Jr. in 1990, as the singer and pianist was in the midst of his first wave of fame; when he took a few stride piano solos, Sung was aghast. “I remember feeling like I had been struck by lightning,” she told the National Endowment for the Arts. “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?’”

Sung was in the middle of studying classical piano at the University of Texas, Austin when she had her Connick-induced jazz epiphany. Born in Houston, she had been drawn to music since she was a toddler picking out melodies on a toy piano. Her father, a civil engineer, and her mother, a nurse, both encouraged her, getting her into piano and violin lessons by the time she was five. They had both immigrated to Texas from Taiwan in the 1970s, after their respective families had moved from China to the island after the Communist Revolution. 

The oldest of four children, Sung says she felt constrained by some of her parents’ traditional values—the pressure to be dutiful and hard-working above all else, the insistence on the value of community over individualism. She found some of those values echoed in the demands of her Russian classical piano teacher. “It’s similar in some ways,” she says. “In my culture, you revere the teacher: You never question them, they’re always right. [My teacher] loved that.”

The experience helped her become an extremely accomplished pianist at a young age, performing internationally and winning contests. But she has never forgotten those hard-won lessons, the ones that helped her figure out what kind of teacher she wanted to be. “Teaching, to me, is such a serious responsibility,” she says. “You have this influence and power over another individual that can be easily misused. Like, I feel like that happened to me when I was a student, whether it was intentional or just the product of the culture.”

Helen Sung (photo: Joseph Boggess)
Helen Sung (photo: Joseph Boggess)

Sung wound up attending Houston’s Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, studying classical across the hall from the school’s prestigious jazz program. She overlapped with drummer Chris Dave and remembers having seen him play during the school’s lunchtime student concerts—but never interacted with the jazz department otherwise. Her piano teacher had told her that it wasn’t real music. “Let’s be perfectly honest, I think I was pretty intimidated by jazz at that point,” she recalls. “I was like, how do you do that? How do you… play music with no music?”

Joining the classical program at UT, she felt like she was on a track: get her bachelor’s, then master’s, then doctorate and eventually find a position teaching at a college program like the one she was in. It was stifling. “Everyone said that your chances of becoming a successful performer were basically gone—that it was too late, you had to have made a splash in middle school,” she says, laughing. 

Then she had her jazz awakening, first enrolling in a Beginning Jazz Piano class as something of a lark along with some of her peers in the classical department, and then falling deeper and deeper in love with the music at an extraordinary rate. Starting skill development in college is about as late for an aspiring jazz musician as it is for a classical one, but that didn’t stop Sung. With Jeff Hellmer, who still teaches at UT, as her guide, Sung dove headfirst into the repertoire, spending hours and hours with Tommy Flanagan, Bill Evans, Kenny Wheeler, Monty Alexander, and Chick Corea, among many others. “Now when I listen to Chick, I think, ‘Dang, I really lifted a lot of stuff from him!’” she quips, with characteristic self-deprecation. 

“‘Women in jazz’ is a necessary stopgap measure. But we are on our way to something new, and we don’t know when that’s going to come or how it’s going to look.”

Earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at UT, she was then accepted into the inaugural class of the Thelonious Monk Institute at the New England Conservatory (now known as the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz Performance and hosted at UCLA) alongside just six other students. She was less than five years into her jazz career, and the only woman in the fledgling program. 

“You can imagine at that time how challenging it was, making a statement in a small group, surrounded by all men,” says Danilo Pérez, who was one of her teachers at the Monk Institute. “And she did it. That was a very challenging moment, but she did it.”

Pérez was immediately struck by Sung’s work ethic. She was devoted to learning jazz, to immersing herself in the music, but there were still ways in which she struggled. “I knew I wasn’t swinging,” she says, recalling how she would record herself (something she now makes all of her students do). “I’d get depressed—like, it feels tense, it doesn’t feel right. I knew I was rushing, but I didn’t know how to make it better.” 

Then new to teaching, Pérez remembers having to figure out how to articulate the process of swing. “A lot of the things that I wanted to show or teach, she would challenge me by saying, ‘How do you break it down? Can you give me something more specific?’” he says. “It wasn’t enough to say, ‘You just do this and feel it.’” He responded by creating a whole slew of different exercises, but also by talking about everything from Duke Ellington to spirituality to the Middle Passage, trying to create a holistic approach to the music that still met Sung’s needs from a technical standpoint. 

Some lessons were more grueling than others. “I spent years focusing on the second part of the triplet,” Sung says with a laugh.

The other major lesson of the Monk Institute, and Sung’s jazz education, was composition: something that had seemed practically unfathomable when she was still playing classical music. She recalls Ron Carter, who was teaching at the Monk Institute, saying, “To find your voice in this music, you need to write your own music.” 

“I remember really being struck by that statement, because I was coming from this classical world where I felt like I didn’t know how to think for myself,” she says. “I didn’t have opinions about anything. Jazz is all about, ‘What do you want to say in this music?’ Which was so scary, for me at least. Just a whole different way of being and thinking and living.”

Carter required the Monk Institute students to bring in compositions once every other week, to perform and critique. For Sung, it was a transformative experience. “I’m so grateful for that experience,” she says. “I never thought I would write anything good enough, anything that I would want to play. But now, aside from performing, writing music is something I really find a lot of delight in.”

Helen Sung's Quartet+ (from left): Felix Umansky, Jaime Amador, Ilmar Gavilán, Sung, David Wong, Melissa White, John Ellis, and Kendrick Scott
Helen Sung’s Quartet+ (from left): Felix Umansky, Jaime Amador, Ilmar Gavilán, Sung, David Wong, Melissa White, John Ellis, and Kendrick Scott

The process of learning jazz was intuitive for Sung in the sense that she was a gifted musician from a young age, but not because she had any unique exposure or education in it. Her success came only because she was willing to embrace the process, to relish being a beginner, to—even though her own self-deprecation disguises it—be fearless enough to enter an unfamiliar world in which she would be the minority in any number of ways: as a woman, a late bloomer, an Asian American. In spite of all the hard work required, Sung views the process as not just rewarding but personally revolutionary: a near-total liberation from the repressive cadence of her early musical life.

“Looking back in Houston, I almost feel like I’m no longer that person,” she says. “Jazz forced me to make a 180-degree turn in some ways. I think I’m the better for it, even though it has not been easy. I’ve worked really hard.”

Her personal revelations did not come with instant professional success, although playing the Monk Institute helped Sung get high-profile gigs alongside Terry and Shorter. Composing kept her going, and she continued the process of digging deeper to refine her own musical voice. 

“I would write something and be like, ‘Oh, this is kind of a standard,’ or ‘Oh, it’s in the style of a musician that I admire,’ and I would just keep working at it,” she says. “I call it peeling away the layers, which I did until I arrived at something that I felt was me. I couldn’t say that this or that means that I’ve reached that point, but I would just know, and amazingly enough, I started kind of getting a book of music together.” Forming a band was then the only real option for her to get the music heard, and to find gigs. “I would have much preferred to be a very busy side person,” she says, laughing. Clearly, though, that wasn’t in the cards.

“I was coming from this classical world where I felt like I didn’t know how to think for myself. I didn’t have opinions about anything. Jazz is all about, ‘What do you want to say in this music?’ Which was so scary.”

Sung’s first album, Push, was released on Fresh Sound New Talent in 2003, and featured an all-star cast that included Marcus Strickland and Brian Blade performing mostly Sung’s original compositions. The result was undoubtedly grounded in jazz tradition, but filtered through Sung’s rigorous, intentional and unselfish approach. 2006’s Helenistique returned to a similar well but with a much higher proportion of standards, with the same kind of unpretentiously remarkable results. In 2007, Sung released Sungbird After Albeniz on Sunnyside, her first explicitly jazz-and-classical project, interspersing compositions by Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz with her own. The album, released the same year that Sung won the Mary Lou Williams Piano Competition, is luminous, showcasing her flair for playing in a way that’s appealing and accessible but never boring.

A live album, Going Express, followed in 2010, along with another trio record, (re)Conception, in 2011. Sung’s Concord debut, Anthem for a New Day (2014), found her playing alongside a bigger band, with more guests (including Regina Carter). “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” was among the tunes featured—a not-so-subtle rebuke of many of Sung’s peers. Lyrics entered Sung’s recorded repertoire in 2018 with Sung with Words, a collaboration with poet Dana Gioia as well as a number of esteemed vocalists including Jean Baylor and Charenee Wade. Her first duo and vinyl-only release, Everybody’s Waltz, arrived in 2021 and showcased Sung alongside trumpeter Marquis Hill.

Her three most recent albums in particular, from With Words to Quartet+, are the best evidence of where Sung is in her career. She is well past proving herself and looking to expand her reach from both an aesthetic standpoint and a philosophical one.

“Stepping into a new season in my life is a little scary, a little uncomfortable, right?” she says. “Because it’s new, and change is always disconcerting. But I’m grateful for that.” The Mosaic Project, Terri Lyne Carrington’s 2011 album that featured an enormous all-female ensemble, was one of Sung’s first projects with a political point. Since then, she has also participated in Karrin Allyson’s 2019 album Shoulder to Shoulder: Centennial Tribute to Women’s Suffrage. 

But her first attempt at incorporating a more specifically activist bent in her work as a bandleader came with the gut punch “Lament for Kalief Browder,” a 2018 tribute to the Bronx man who died by suicide after being held for three years at the Rikers Island jail without trial for allegedly stealing a backpack. Browder spent two of those years in solitary confinement. She revisits the track on Quartet+, where it sounds, if anything, even more relevant than it was when she first recorded it.

“I want to create music and projects that people find engaging and—here’s the dirty word—accessible.”

As she deepens her explorations of how questions around gender and race connect with her work, Sung is finding plenty of new challenges. Our conversation took place shortly after Sung completed a short residency at the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice. “I was talking with another faculty member, Kris Davis,” she says. “When we were in it, we just kept our heads down and bulldozed ahead. It’s surprising to me to see these students just … expecting certain things that didn’t even enter my mind.”

After two decades of being consistently framed as a “woman in jazz,” Sung is tired of the conceit but sees its utility in a space where women are still so frequently assumed to be less-than. (When asked if he thought Sung had been underestimated because of her gender, Ron Carter said, “Absolutely.”) “I would say ‘women in jazz’ is a necessary stopgap measure,” she says. “But we are on our way to something new, and we don’t know when that’s going to come or how it’s going to look.”

Another point Sung is beginning to explore more is her Asian-American heritage—something that, similarly, she pushed out of her mind for years as she tried to establish herself in the music. “I feel like Asian Americans have been portrayed in a very narrow way in the U.S.,” she says. “This is a journey that I’m on, that I’m exploring for myself. What does it mean to be Asian-American?” 

Within jazz, it certainly makes her a minority. “I know of several times when I didn’t get the opportunity because I didn’t look the part and I didn’t fit,” Sung says. “People are like, ‘Oh, Helen, you should do something with your Asian heritage.’ Well, what does that even mean? Like a Chinese melody set in a jazz context? No, thank you—I mean that’s so cheesy to me. I feel like I’m still grappling with that.”

Instead, the pianist is using opportunities like the Chamber Music America digital residency and Quartet+ to try and engage with ideas about inequality in her own way, through her art—while still putting the quality of the art and the thought behind it front and center. 

“I want to create music and projects that people find engaging and—here’s the dirty word—accessible,” she says. “I can be pretty intellectual about things but in the end, I want to connect with the audience. I want to see that you really enjoyed what you heard.”

To make that happen, Sung is more than willing to keep learning and questioning. To pursue lines of inquiry that other people might take for granted in order to deepen her practice. Sung is in her final year at the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop and recently had a conversation with Rufus Reid—another recent BMI participant—about why that has been important for both of them. “A lot of people asked me, ‘Why are you doing this? You’re already established,’” he told her. “Helen, it’s all about the process. I want to learn.”

Sung is content in that process, comfortable in the kind of rare humility that suggests she will keep approaching new challenges with the same zest that she applied to the first one. As she puts it, “I still feel like I’ll be chasing the swing for the rest of my life.” 

Before & After with Helen Sung

Natalie Weiner

Natalie Weiner writes about music for a variety of publications including JazzTimes, Billboard, The New York Times, Pitchfork and Rolling Stone. She is also a staff writer at SB Nation where she covers women’s sports and the NFL. Previously, she was a staff writer at Bleacher Report, and an associate editor at Billboard magazine.