I often wonder how I got here. Being a jazz composer seemed far from my fate but I paved my way, built and followed a new destiny.
I do not hail from a musical family, only having six months of piano lessons when I was nine years old. I had no real exposure to classical or jazz music, just the pop music that was on TV. My only instrument was a recorder, with which I would play all the cartoon theme music key in C and it naturally developed my movable Do solfege. When I was young what I really wanted to do was singing but I was a shy kid so I repressed the urge until my late teens. I remember visiting my friend’s rock band, eager to join the circle as a vocalist. I said I wanted to be a guitarist instead because I felt singing required a thick skin. After a year of self-taught guitar playing, I desperately wanted to dive deeper into the art and finally decided to take up singing. I studied music theory books, at the same time listened religiously to and imitated many female pop singers.
I was still hungry after graduating Dongduk Women’s University with a degree in Voice Performance. During that time I noticed my personality was a bit different from other singers. I was more interested in writing music than singing itself. I sort of settled on a singer-songwriter path, but could not resist my desire to do more, especially composition. I picked up the dream that I had given up a long time ago because of my previous financial situation. Withdrawing all the money that I had saved up over the years, I decided to move to Boston and attend Berklee College of Music.
What is this jazz orchestra? I knew I wanted to study composition but did not know what I would encounter. Since the songwriting course was focused on English lyrics, I did not even try – I barely spoke enough to survive. Film Scoring and Contemporary Writing and Production were too threatening because I was not good with technology. I had one choice left, Jazz Composition. I heard big band music for the first time in my life, both from recordings and live performances. Of course I had no idea about the instruments and how to write for that many people, but I was certainly enchanted. Several months after declaring my major in Jazz Composition, I received the prestigious Duke Ellington Award; in that moment I almost fell to the ground not just because it was a big surprise but because I was out of money and this scholarship was a sign that I will make it through somehow. With the help of many miracles and supporters, I was able to finish all of my studies including a masters degree from Manhattan School of Music under the direction of the great Jim McNeely.
Situations can be perceived from different perspectives. Although I was neither a prodigy (maybe I was but no one cared!), nor had the support system to become a musician, I like how my life has unfolded. It makes me unique and I show who I am through my music. Since my path as a composer is not traditional, I am actually encouraged to be bold and not to think what is right or wrong in writing. Having little musical background can certainly be a minus and I am always trying to catch up. I feel embarrassed when I contemplate my old works. I do not even know what I was thinking sometimes and I will forever carry this doubt as I learn and improve. Nonetheless, flashes of creativity does creep through if you listen to your true self.
Transitioning from pop singer to jazz composer is an uncommon experience and people will see it through their prejudices. I like the fact that my experience gives me different angles to jazz composition. It not only provides me with the lyricism to my melody writing, but listening to all the pop music makes me think about characters in every composition, something with which people can identify. Also since I am not an instrumentalist, I do not have the habit of going to the piano or guitar right away to play chords and melodies, instead I first come up with an idea, image, or message and try to find a way to express them through musical elements. For example, I used only one bass note throughout my composition ‘Unshakable Mind’ to symbolize the meaning of the title.
Composition is form of record-keeping for myself. As my life changes, so does my music and I am not afraid of that. When I first moved to New York in 2015, everything was chaotic, my personal life and the city itself and my music reflected this. At that time, I wrote music for myself as an emotional release. I was able to endure the hard times because I composed. After a few years, I am more relaxed and my music is becoming less complicated and easier to listen to, harmonically more of tonal sense as well. All living things change. I am happy and excited to discover what will come of my life and writing. What I should do is to be honest and keep on documenting. Composition also can be like raising a child. Sometimes you kind of have to surrender, give up on creating the perfect piece but accept what is given and work hard to polish and develop it further. You learn how to love it regardless how imperfect it may be.
Jazz welcomes you to be yourself. It is the most accepting art form to which everybody can contribute, making it as lush and diverse as who we are, so as long as we accept ourselves first. Jazz does not exclude based on gender, nationality, ethnicity, religion, age and so forth and I am blessed to have found that home to which I can belong. Be true to yourself and be happy with what you have in life. Never pretend to be someone else and keep on searching for what you really want. I remember Jim McNeely told me once that he enjoys working with students who tell a story more than students who write well-written music. I am well aware of how important it is to hone a skill – a skill can be taught but originality through life cannot.
I am still a novice composer, enjoying all the ups and downs, at least trying to enjoy. I dream to keep on creating something that only I can offer to the jazz scene. I wrote many words and these are not my final conclusion but the thoughts that I have now. I just wanted to share my story and encourage everyone to create the music with their originality. Your background, whatever it is, makes you the one and only.
About the Author:
Jihye Lee is a New York-based jazz composer and bandleader.
She was an indie pop singer-songwriter in South Korea. Feeling that something was missing, Lee followed her curious heart and embarked for uncharted waters in 2011. She studied at the Berklee College of Music where she was introduced to big band music for the first time in her life, leading her to forge a whole new path in jazz composition. Soon after, she would receive the prestigious Duke Ellington Award for two consecutive years along with other scholarships and honors, confirming her hidden ability.
After graduating from Berklee, Lee organized a successful crowdfunding campaign for her first big band album, April, which was co-produced by Greg Hopkins and recorded with musicians consisting of other Berklee faculty and professionals from the Boston area. In 2015, with generous funding from school scholarships and the CJ Cultural Foundation, Lee finally moved to New York to study with Jim McNeely at the Manhattan School of Music.
Lee released her album, April, in 2017, garnering global praise as a fresh original voice on the jazz composition scene. She has presented her music in the United States and Asia at various venues and festivals including the DC JazzFest.
The BMI Foundation awarded Lee with the Charlie Parker Jazz Composition Prize in 2018. Recently, she has written music for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and Carnegie Hall’s NYO Jazz. She is currently working on her second album.
Learn more at jihyemusic.com or by emailing email@example.com