Jennifer Lee is a complete jazz musician. She sings with bebop precision and affecting feeling, she plays both piano and guitar with a comprehensive knowledge of jazz harmony, and she has a huge repertoire of standards, Brazilian bossas, little known classics, and original songs. You might argue, in fact, that she’s a Bay Area Diana Krall.
Except for one thing: she’s not famous. Not even close. She’s not even married to Elvis Costello. She’s just very, very good.
Almost There, Yet So Far Away
Two months ago, Jennifer Lee played for the first time at Yoshi’s, the top jazz club in the Bay Area. “It was better than I imagined it—a full house with so many people from all my different communities. I usually have to shake off some nervousness, but at Yoshi’s I was comfortable from the start.” After a long road, including making her sterling new recording Quiet Joy, she experienced one of what should be a string of highlights to come.
So, Lee is talented and smart and well down the road as an artist. She has two full-length recordings independently on the market and a Yoshi’s gig on her resumé. But she is at a crossroads. What do you do next to get bigger audiences, to let your music—and we’re talking about straight-up jazz here and not some Norah Jones-y hybrid that might just make you a million dollars if the right person at Starbucks Corp. falls in love with it—flower?
It is not clear that Jennifer Lee—or that anyone in her position—has a foolproof plan. “I don’t have a specific plan,” she admit. “It has a been a gradual process for me to feel confident that I belonged on that stage at Yoshi’s. I finally feel that I’ve got something special to say. I don’t have a goal of being famous, but if getting some notoriety allows me to get concert gigs and get people there, playing and making music so that all that energy is there from the audience—that’s my goal.”
The Freedom to Sing
Lee’s story, like so many others, begins with her mom and dad. Her mom made sure she received the critical music lessons she needed, and her father’s criticism of her as a child first held her back and then let her go.
Lee took traditional piano lessons from the age of five, but they didn’t last. On a family trip to Mexico when she was eight, her parents agreed to buy her one thing. “I wanted a guitar. At which point I thought, ‘The heck with the piano!’ My mom got a teacher for me who taught me the basic folk chords. Then as a freshman in high school I started taking piano lessons again and told my mom I wanted to play jazz.”
Her mother also supplied crucial inspiration, as she owned several classic jazz records and tapes that the young Lee found captivating. “I loved them: Dakota Staton and George Shearing, the Stan Getz bossa-nova discs, the Modern Jazz Quartet playing The King and I, the soundtrack for A Man and a Woman.” Lee was exposed to classic jazz and seminal adaptations of Brazilian music, and so a life’s trajectory in music was set. The teen-aged Jennifer Lee got a teacher for the basics of jazz harmony, she applied this to her guitar as well as the piano, and she played in jazz bands in high school and then junior college.
What she didn’t do, however, was sing in public.
“I started singing when I got my guitar, and I knew then that singing brought me the most joy in the world. When I started taking jazz piano, I started singing a tiny bit and accompanying myself. But I was just a closet singer—I would not open my mouth unless I thought I was totally alone. I was terrified of singing in front of people.”
Lee had stopped pursuing music in her early 20s. She went to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst for an art degree, then finished up at home in San Jose because her father had become sick. Eventually, she was taking care of him full-time. “I was still scared of singing, and I was not confident enough about my piano playing then either—I just did not feel I would ever be good enough.
“When my father died at only 51-years-old, it was the catalyst for me. I realized that I’d better do what I want to do, as you never know how much time you have left.”
And her father’s death released her not only from a full-time pursuit but also from her fear. “Some of my reluctant feeling about singing was tied to my relationship with my father, who used to tell me to keep my mouth shut and would get me in very big trouble if I didn’t. His death freed me up—I lost my fear of his judgment.”
A Late Apprenticeship in Learning the Joy
With a new goal, Jennifer Lee made progress, taking whatever gigs she could get. “If it was some ratty little bar somewhere, I didn’t care. The self-expression had been building up in me for years. I thought, if I can sing in some little place, that will be cool. I was almost 30, but I thought, ‘I’m going to be a singer. Yeah, jazz is the thing for me.’”
While she waitressed for a while and then did copy-editing work, she soon had some steady singing work, too. “I sang at a Starbucks in San Francisco and then at some nice restaurants. Eventually I became the house singer at the Ritz Carlton for four-five years. The money was better, it was steady, and I got lots of other casual gigs through meeting people at the hotel. I learned a lot doing that.
“But during that time there was some feeling of—‘Is this all there is?’ But there was also the terror of losing the gig. And, of course, that eventually happened. With 9/11, the hotel cut way back—first we lost our bassist, then they went to just solo piano.”
Lee tells stories of a million other gigs at parties or other occasions where few people may have been listening and where she was all alone with her voice and her instrument. “When I first started doing solo gigs, playing piano and singing on my own, it felt lonely. But I realized I could have a joyful experience playing on my own. If I can get totally present and just be the music, and get out of my head, thinking about what I’m doing—that is another joyful experience making music.”
Eventually, she would emerge ready to record.