[23 July 2009]
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.
On the Record
Lee had the chance to record a compilation disc, Quint-Essential, with four other Bay Area female vocalists, which generated some concert opportunities, including work at area wineries. In 2003, she followed with her first full-length, Jaywalkin’, in 2003.
By now, Lee was playing plenty of piano along with her singing, and she was allied with some of the better musicians in her area, including Peter Sprague on guitar and Bob Magnusson on bass. Jaywalkin’ mixes standards (a confidently slow “Baltimore Oriole”, a pocket-rich “Blue Skies”, a lightly Latin-ized “Night and Day”), bossas sung in easy Portuguese (“Chega de Saudade” by Jobim), and some originals (“Note to My Niece” with some lovely accordion, and a solo piano “Cathy’s Song”). Her version of “I’m Old Fashioned” is taken at a delicious crawl, with a clever arrangement that makes clear that Lee the Musician and Lee the Singer are certainly one and the same.
“It’s great to have instrumental skill as a singer. There are so many singers who don’t speak the language and therefore can’t communicate with their accompanist. I can write my own charts—so I encourage every singer to learn something about piano so you don’t have to be dependent on other people. I just feel so blessed that I can play. The language of music is just a part of me.”
Her 2009 release, Quiet Joy, features mostly the same musicians and similar approach but boasts even more confidence, musicianship, and flair. The opener, “I Hear Music”, is a bravado performance that comes off light and easy as Lee zips through a complex arrangement with natural grace. Smooth but not treacly, Lee’s singing moves with the precision of an alto sax. Her tone, however, is a sunny day, making her about as perfect a bossa nova singer as you will find. Her medley of “Amor Certinho / S’wonderful” is totally convincing—relaxed, hip, and knowing.
Lee transforms the classics, but she unearths songs you haven’t heard before, too. “‘I Don’t Want to Fall’ is wonderfully unique—with unusual chord changes. I found this song on a CD by Jeannie Bryson, and I’d never heard it before. Her mother is one of the composers. I’d not heard it before or after, and I wanted to do it on the new record.”
With Jaywalkin’ and Quiet Joy to her credit, what more should Jennifer Lee have to do to “make it” as a significant jazz talent? Alas, as ever, the music is not enough.
Marketing “Jennifer Lee”
It’s a heck of a great mousetrap. Now: who’s going to buy it? Or even find out about it?
When it comes to selling herself, Lee admits, “I’m flying by the seat of my pants. I am working with radio marketing people and a publicist, but I don’t have a distributor. It’s a big challenge being an independent musician. I have to wear so many hats, and there’s so much I don’t know about how to proceed. I’m doing my best to put it out there.”
First things first. We all know that “jazz” mostly doesn’t sell. “When people ask me what kind of music I sing, I say ‘jazz and Brazilian music,’ but it’s not that simple. I can’t tell you how many times people have said, ‘I don’t like jazz.’ People think of crazy horn solos, loud and fast. But it is such a huge spectrum. It is a truly rare individual who would not like any of the music that falls under the jazz category.”
Lee, however, fits neatly into a portion of the jazz market that does sell: she is a lovely female vocalist. And though she is a player too, she is conscious of “putting myself out there as the ‘chick singer’. If I couldn’t sing, I know that marketing my music would be more challenging than it already is.”
Image, Lee knows, is part of what sells. “For Jaywalkin’ I initially used a cover that was consciously not sexy at all. It got some attention and some good reviews, but it didn’t really take me anywhere. I came to believe that the first cover was a mistake. The truth of this world is that more people would have had a chance to hear the music if I had been willing to use a more dressed up cover. I repackaged it with a cover that made it clearer than I am a girl and I can look good when I’m dressed up. Why not use everything you’ve got to put your music out there as long as you do it in a self-respecting way?”
When it comes to the music, however, Jennifer Lee goes strictly with her gut. For example, she’s less likely to record love songs today than she used to be. “I love them, and there are so many out there. But these days I’m less interested in singing about romantic love than about other things I feel are more real—like love at a greater depth or the joy and beauty of this life, or even making music. Those are truer expressions of me and my consciousness.”
And so her latest, Quiet Joy, contains expressions of joy and hope that are maybe more abstract or, well, musical: “I Hear Music”, “Music of Your Soul” or “Never Never Land”. On the cover, Lee sits in her backyard garden, attractive but contemplative. From looking at this photo, you would certainly believe, as is true, that Lee teaches piano to kids and families when she’s not swinging at Yoshi’s or beyond. She’s not exactly The Next Hot Young Thing. She’s not even some seductive jazz singer in a little black dress, holding a martini and giving you a late night wink. But she is a heck of a singer and musician, and she’s ready to be heard.
Soaring Beyond Expectations
“Whatever I do in life, I want to people to have a joyful experience—me, my band, my audience, my students.”
Talking to Jennifer Lee, it is hard not to be struck by how carefully she has compartmentalized the part of her that is striving to be a great—a greatly appreciated—jazz singer. On the one hand, there is her astonishing new disc, a recording that simply could not exist if she had not honed her talent for decades in preparation. On the other hand, Lee seems comfortable if things do not take off. You listen to the record and feel that her success should be inevitable. But you also know—like her—that these things are quirky.
“When you play or listen to music, you can have a transcendent experience, a joyful, blissful, emotionally evocative experience. That’s my goal: to make as much of my music like that as possible.”
Quiet Joy is out on the record label SBE, set up and run by the guitarist Peter Sprague. “SBE”, Sprague told Lee, laughingly stands for “Striving to Break Even”.
“I told Peter, ‘Striving to Break Even’ is really funny, but I’m going to pretend that SBE stands for something else. You know what my mother thinks it should stand for? ‘Soaring Beyond Expectations’.”
Which is a neat summary of Jennifer Lee’s view of her jazz career and an accurate assessment of the brilliance of her singing. Here’s hoping that the rest of the jazz world catches up quickly with what she’s done.