Her journey was one that began with a single concert. As a youngster, the now-celebrated jazz pianist Helen Sung wanted to be a classical pianist.
She truly believed what her Russian piano teacher drummed into her head for eight years: “there is no music worth listening to other than classical music.” It was at the University of Texas that a friend persuaded her to attend a jazz concert by Harry Connick Jr. “She told me the performer was cute,” remembers Sung. “In the middle of the concert he broke into a solo piece. He just kept banging the piano keys. I was shocked…he was breaking all the rules I had been taught.” Sung’s reaction to the concert was very visceral — she recalls that it made her feel alive.
Thus began Sung’s journey into jazz, one that has taken her from the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, to leading her own band and teaching music to jazz graduates at the Berklee College of Music. Sung is presently in India as part of an initiative that helps people discover and reconnect with jazz. Jus’ Jazz is a festival organised by Jazz Addicts, a newly-formed group of jazz enthusiasts who want to revive the classical form of jazz through concerts and performances.
Igor Butman is one of the artists in the line-up. The Russian jazz saxophonist is a firm believer in the power of concerts in helping people open up to jazz — “it has to be a good concert though, not a mediocre one,” he points out. Butman’s introduction to jazz was via his family’s fondness for the genre, but can also be indirectly linked to a concert. His father was once in the audience for a show during Benny Goodman’s tour of the Soviet Union. “My father was always talking about jazz and Goodman. He had a lot of jazz records which I would listen to constantly,” he says. When old enough, Butman started his music classes at Rimsky-Korsakov College of Music, and later under the alto saxophone soloist Gennady Golstain at the Mussorgsky Music School.
Golstain got Butman hooked to jazz masters like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and The Cannonball Adderley Quintet. “Listening to good jazz that bursts forth from a record player is just magical,” says Butman. His advice to budding jazz aficionados: “get your hands on as many records you can...beg, borrow and search for them.”
These days good jazz isn’t limited to just old records but also be accessed online. “The important thing when learning about jazz is to just keep listening to as much music as you can,” says Sung. “If and when someone grabs you, then you can begin to focus on that person or that style of music.”
Butman believes Charlie Parker’s music should be on the listening list of anyone who wants to learn about jazz. Jazz vocalist Diane Witherspoon has a different list. “I would have them listen to vocal jazz such as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughn, and some early be-bop such as Dizzy Gillespie,” she says. “Listening to these vocalists shows people the fun and beauty of this genre.”
Witherspoon’s introduction to jazz was in her words, “subliminal”. “It was just always around my home as a teen, and then later as a young adult living with a jazz musician,” she says. Witherspoon’s sister used to be a former Duke Ellington vocalist and her second cousin, Jimmy Witherspoon, was a legendary blues singer. “My early teachers were jazz musician friends in Oakland,” she says.
From singing in a church choir as a child to performing with jazz greats like Cedar Walton and Steve Turre, Witherspoon has come a long way. Her advice to those keen on learning jazz is to treat it like it’s just music. For the more academically inclined, Witherspoon suggests checking out the Ken Burns book and television series which she says is very informative for new jazz discoverers. “It is nothing impossible, you just have to be open to the music,” she says.
Sung here has the final word. “Learning jazz depends on how you respond to it. It should make you want to get up and dance.”
Jus’ Jazz will take place on Sunday, November 4 and Monday, November 5 at the NCPA.