Wardrobe by Vivienne Tam
Sung enrolled at the University of Texas in Austin, where she studied classical piano. The plan was to become a concert pianist and probably teach in tandem with performing, but the seismic shift occurred in her last year of undergraduate studies, when a friend invited her to a Harry Connick, Jr., concert.
Pianist/composer Helen Sung has spent most of her life in two distinct worlds. A classical student from a young age who transitioned to jazz in her early twenties, she understands the limitless range and potential of the piano in a way that few specialists in either genre can. In addition, as the daughter of Chinese immigrants, Sung embodies two diverse cultures and has discovered a musical voice and identity that are true to both - and more importantly, true to herself.
Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Sung began classical piano and violin lessons at age five, studying during her formative teenage years with a severe teacher of the Russian classical piano tradition.
Helen walked this straight and narrow path all the way through four years of Houston's acclaimed High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA), choosing to continue her classical piano studies at the University of Texas in Austin despite her parents' hopes that she pursue a more traditional career in medicine.
Her plan was to become a concert pianist, enter competitions, and most likely teach in tandem with performing, but a seismic shift occurred in her last year of undergraduate studies, when a friend invited her to a Harry Connick, Jr., concert.
Helen recalls, "He performed with his big band and they were very entertaining. But in the middle of the concert, he sat down and played some solo piano pieces. I remember wanting to jump out of my skin, this music was so alive...I remember thinking "I didn't know you were allowed to play the piano like that!"
It was the beginning of her musical emancipation and the result was an unexpected course correction: while she finished her classical studies, Sung enrolled in beginning jazz courses, convinced the Jazz Piano Professor to give her lessons, and immersed herself in jazz recordings and books at UT's music library.
After receiving her Bachelor of Music, Helen decided to stay and complete a Master of Music degree in classical piano performance (UT did not offer a Master's degree in jazz at that time) while also taking every available jazz course.
A growing concern over this change in Helen's musical studies caused her parents to insist that she consider doctoral programs in classical piano after she received her Master's degree. Walking a fine line between their agenda and her own, she requested information from various schools, including the New England Conservatory. A modest paragraph in NEC's brochure announced the brand new Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance to be housed there, starting in 1995. The two-year program would only accept seven students, one on each instrument to form a jazz septet. Helen secretly decided to only apply for that program and was accepted as the pianist for the inaugural class.
Wardrobe by Vivienne Tam
"Getting to be on the stage with folks like that is so heavy. You just learn so much. Working with someone like Terri Lyne has been a great experience and inspiration...I love how she continues to be open and curious about music."
It was a life changing experience for which she credits her current artistic trajectory - "I really don't know what I would have done if I hadn't been accepted, but lo and behold, I got in," she says. "It was such a special experience. Ron Carter was the artistic director, and he worked us hard. It was an incredible two years where I was able to just practice and focus on jazz."
In addition to Carter, the two-year program featured a Who's Who of Jazz Master teachers including Clark Terry, Jackie McLean, Sir Roland Hanna, Jimmy Heath, Wynton Marsalis, Barry Harris, and Jon Faddis, to name a few. The students also toured India and Thailand with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, performed at the Kennedy Center, and gained experience giving masterclasses and workshops.
Upon graduation, Helen gigged around Boston with some of her Monk Institute alumni and area artists before moving to New York in 1999: that year she was a semifinalist in the Thelonious Monk Institute Jazz Piano Competition, and also received a Fish-Middleton Jazz Scholarship. She started her small group with which she further refined her performance chops and also began testing her abilities as a composer. By 2002, Sung had compiled enough material to record PUSH, her first album released on the Fresh Sound New Talent label in 2003. Helenistique followed in 2006, before she landed at Sunnyside Records with the 2007 release of Sungbird After Albeniz, a project that interweaves her jazz and classical experiences. That same year, Sung won the Kennedy Center's Mary Lou Williams Jazz Piano Competition, and was featured on the late Marian McPartland?s celebrated NPR show Piano Jazz.
Helen's next album Going Express (also on Sunnyside) was recorded live at the Jazz Standard in New York City and released in 2010, and (Re)Conception followed a year later on the Danish label Steeplechase. In 2014, Sung's sixth release as leader and major label debut on Concord Jazz, Anthem For A New Day, topped jazz radio charts, made the UK's Best of 2014 Jazz Albums List, reached the top quadrant of Billboard's Jazz Album chart, and garnered a SESAC Performance Activity Award.
Helen has also taken part in various stage and studio projects with a range of artists, including such luminaries as Clark Terry (she was the pianist for his last big band and played on his final two recordings Live at Marian's Jazzroom and Louie (Bellson) & Clark: Expedition 2), Wayne Shorter, Wynton Marsalis (who named Sung as one of his "Who's Got Next: Jazz Musicians to Watch"), Steve Turre, and MacArthur Fellow Regina Carter. Sung can currently be seen with such fine ensembles as the Mingus Big Band, the T.S.Monk Sextet & 'Monk on Monk' Tentet, and Terri Lyne Carrington's Mosaic Project (Helen also performs on Carrington's GRAMMY® Award-winning Mosaic Project album).
"Getting to be on the stage with folks like that is so heavy. You just learn so much. Working with someone like Terri Lyne has been a great experience and inspiration. She's had such a fascinating and diverse life. I love how she continues to be open and curious about music."
In 2011, Sung played with the Mingus Dynasty Band in the city where her parents grew up in Taiwan. "We played the outdoor jazz festival, and there were more than 2000 people there, all of them going crazy for jazz...a simply incredible experience!" she says. "I also heard some young Taiwanese jazz musicians, and they could really play! It was a profound experience. I felt a connection with them - and I felt connected to being Chinese - in a way I had never felt before."
With featured appearances at major festivals/venues including Newport, Monterey, Detroit, SFJAZZ, and Carnegie Hall, Sung is also stepping onto the international stage: her NuGenerations Project was selected to tour southern Africa as a 2009 U.S. State Department Jazz Ambassador; other recent engagements include European tours promoting Anthem, the 2015 London Jazz Festival, Taiwan?s 2016 & 2017 Taichung International Jazz Festivals, and tours in China, Malaysia, India, Mexico, and Uruguay.
An active, award-winning composer, Sung was the commissioned composer for West Chester University's 2009 Poetry Conference. She also won a 2009 Chamber Music America Residency Grant, enabling her create and program a jazz residency week at an area school (she selected the Camden, NJ, charter school UrbanPromise) where students engaged in a multi-disciplinary experience of instrumental jazz, vocal jazz, dance, and visual art. That same year North Coast Brewing Company, maker of Brother Thelonious Belgian ale, commissioned Sung to write a theme song for the beer and appointed her to be the musical director/arranger for its Brother Thelonious Quintet album. Her composition "Brother Thelonious" is also featured on her album Anthem For A New Day.
Helen was a winner of a 2010 NYC Spaces/Con Edison Composer-in-Residence Grant at Flushing Town Hall. She was also selected to present and perform her Sungbird after Albeniz project at the 2010 Aspen Ideas Festival. In 2014, she won a Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation USArtists International Grant, which supported her debut at the Wigan International Jazz Festival (UK). She also won a 2014 Chamber Music America/Doris Duke Foundation New Jazz Works Grant, enabling her to create and record Sung With Words, a "music-inspiring-poetry-inspiring-music" collaboration with acclaimed American poet Dana Gioia, California's current Poet Laureate and former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. The album, which will also feature Gioia's readings of his poems, is slated for a 2018 release.
In 2015, Sung began exploring composing for larger ensembles, winning a spot in the BMI Jazz Composer's Workshop. She won 3rd prize at the Workshop's 2016 Composition Competition, and also arranged/performed a big band arrangement of McCoy Tyner's Four By Five for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra's 2016 season opening concerts. This arrangement and performance is featured on the 2017 Blue Engine release Handful of Keys.
Inspired by her experience at the Monk Institute, Helen stays involved in music education through residencies and workshops/clinics. She has served on the faculties of the Brooklyn-Queens Conservatory of Music, the Newark Boys Chorus School, and the Berklee College of Music. She is currently a member of the jazz faculties at the Juilliard School and Columbia University.
Helen maintains close ties with her hometown Houston, performing there regularly and visiting her high school HSPVA to conduct master classes with both the classical and jazz departments. The Houston Chinese Community Center selected her as an "Artist Honoree" at their 2011 Gala, and she will be inducted into HSPVA's "Hall of Fame" in December 2017. In January 2017, the College of Fine Arts of her alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin, awarded Sung with its most prestigious honor: the E. William Doty Distinguished Alumna Award.
--with John Bruening