Elmhurst resident and pianist Helen Sung has followed her muse and it has paid off.
Her parents wanted her to attend medical school, but she had other plans. Musical ones. She originally studied to be a classical musician, but her exposure to pianist Tommy Flanagan and pianist-vocalist Harry Connick Jr. led to “Aha!” moments thatinspiredher to take up jazz as a career.
After earning bachelor and graduate degrees in classical piano at the University of Texas at Austin, she studied at the Thelonius Monk Institute for Jazz Performance, then located at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music. The Houston, Tex. native went on to win the prestigious Kennedy Center’s Mary Lou Williams Jazz Piano Competition and has collaborated with Clark Terry, Regina Carter and Terri Lyne Carrington.
Now Sung has an upcoming show at Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center on Monday, March 26, as well as a performance tonight, March 22, at the Brooklyn Museum. From her Elmhurst home, she spoke of her training, mentors and inspirations.
Happy in her adopted borough, she noted that famed jazz saxophonist “Jimmy Heath is not far from me [in Corona]. A lot of the younger generation are in LIC and Astoria, but I think there are a few coming to Elmhurst.”
Sung added that when she moved here, “I didn’t know anybody in New York.Someone I knew a long time ago from Texas happened to have a room available in her apartment. I like it. It’s a really diverse neighborhood.”
Though she now lives in a place renowned for its contributions to jazz — when Heath moved to Corona, Louis Armstrong had already been there for 20 years — Sung’s musical taste was born in Texas.
“A friend of mine had invited me to a Harry Connick Jr. concert [in Austin],” she recalled. “This was near the end of my undergraduate studies. He came into town with his big band. I remember enjoying the big band, but he sat down in the middle of the concert and played a couple of solo piano pieces. I remember being so blown away because I felt, ‘This guy’s breaking all the rules I was taught to follow so carefully by my teachers.’
“It was a visceral response, “ she added. “I wanted to jump out of my seat.”
Even though she went on to finish graduate work in classical piano, she had “this uneasy feeling my life was planned out for me.”A jazz professor at the University of Texas had given her a Tommy Flanagan recording of Charlie Parker’s classic “Confirmation.” After hearing it, Sung said, she thought to herself, “I want to be able to sound like that.”
The Monk Institute for Jazz Performance provided her with the opportunity she needed to learn how.
“I’m looking at these people who were on my CDs and they’re standing in front of me,” she said of her time there. Sung appreciated the apprentice relationship she took on with jazz masters, even if it came with criticism at times.
“I remember Jon Faddis saying, ‘Helen, you don’t have the blues in your playing.You need to find out about the blues,’” she said.
She did. As anyone might glean from her five albums to date, especially on such tracks as “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back” and Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues.”
At the Monk Institute, the visiting faculty included Ron Carter, Clark Terry, Jimmy Heath, Jackie McLean, Wynton Marsalis, Sir Roland Hanna, Barry Harris and Bennie Maupin, Sung recalled. Soon, stars were happy to have her on the ivories on stage.
“We toured with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock,” she said. “It was a complete thrill.I was so used to seeing them on record covers and magazines. It was just awesome.”
Sung has been to Taiwan with Mingus Dynasty and played the Clifford Brown Jazz Festival, Tanglewood and other fests in Detroit, Monterey and Seattle.She’s also appeared on the National Public Radio shows “JazzSet” and “Piano Jazz,” as well as XM Satellite Radio’s “In the Swing Seat with Wynton Marsalis” and PBS’ “In Performance at the White House.”
Marsalis put her on his 2011 top 10 list of jazz musicians to watch.Through it all she remains enthusiastic about playing in Queens venues like Flushing Town Hall, where she was 2010’s composer-in-residence.
“I loved that space,” she said. “I was very fortunate to be able to work there.”
When: March 22 at 7 p.m. March 26 at 9:30 p.m.
Where: March 22: Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Pkwy.
March 26: Jazz at Lincoln Center, Broadway at 60th Street, Manhattan