Helen Sung

Helen Sung, pianist/composer, has lived most of her adult life in two worlds. She was a classical pianist from an early age and switched to jazz in her twenties. This means that she is able to see the endless possibilities of the piano like few other specialists. Sung is also the daughter of Chinese immigrants. She has found a musical identity and voice that reflect both cultures. Sung was born in Houston. Sung began classical piano playing at the age of five. She studied for most her childhood with a strict and rigid teacher. Sung recalls, “She didn’t want me listening to anything but classical music.” It was her way or the highway,” Sung recalls. She followed this narrow and straight path through four years at Houston’s High School of Performing and Visual Arts. She recalls that “it’s so a shame” because she was just across the hall from HSPVA’s jazz department, but she never had contact with jazz students. Despite her parents’ wishes that she go into medicine, Sung decided to enroll at the University of Texas at Austin where she studied classical piano. Her original plan was to be a concert pianist, and possibly teach alongside performing, but she made a seismic change in her final year of undergraduate study when a friend invited Sung to attend a Harry Connick, Jr. concert. She says, “As a classical major and who lived in the practice area, I didn’t know who he were.” He had a big band and they were great. He sat down to play some solo piano pieces in the middle, which made me want to leap out of my skin. The music was so alive. He banged on the piano in a manner that I was never taught to do. It sounded so great.” This was an instant – and dramatic- reversal of course. Sung enrolled in jazz classes and was enthralled in every jazz pianist’s work, from Jelly Roll Morton through Cecil Taylor to Keith Jarrett. She admits that she didn’t know what she was doing. She admits that she didn’t know what she was doing.

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