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Chien Chien Lu: On The Right Path

Courtesy Kasia Idzkowska

William H. Snyder BY

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I never feel ready to make a record, you know, everyone is so advanced. I’m just a jazz baby.
—Chien Chien Lu
Chien Chien Lu is a vibes and marimba player who lived the first quarter of a century of her life in Taiwan. This year she is closing in on 32 years of age. One of three children, she went to church with Dad and temple with Mom—her father being a Christian, and her mother a Buddhist. Now she's a self-avowed spiritual person, but not particularly religious. Years of Chinese classical music training as a percussionist led her to complete her Masters in Jazz Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She lives in Harlem in New York City and recently led her quartet in a live Saturday night performance at the Clifford Brown Jazz Festival in Wilmington, Delaware. Talking about the transition from Taiwan to the States she smiled...

"I really didn't have a vision when I left Taiwan but I came anyway. I didn't like what was happening with my music. It felt like I was stuck in a box so I started to listen to different kinds of music. American jazz gave me the feeling of freedom and I went to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia for a Master's in Jazz Studies. The location of the school turned out to be very important for me. It's on Broad Street, not far from Chris' Jazz Café. The club is very close to the school on Sansom Street. I got a one month residency there even though I didn't know much jazz music. I played every night from 10PM till 2AM and learned a lot doing that. When I started I didn't know any tunes and used my classical music training to practice 10 hours a day so I could learn the tunes and feel like I belonged."

"When I have time to myself I like to work out. It makes me feel good. I prefer to spend time with close friends. I have friends here now, many of them musicians, of course, and I like to be with all kinds of people but I'm not into hanging out with lots of people. I get stressed out when people judge me or tell me how I should think. I prefer close friends who know who I am and don't tell me what to do; we just chill together. When I have time off I like to eat all different kinds of good food.

"I like to travel but long plane trips tire me out. If I had the time and a green card I'd like to go to Mexico because it's pretty close. I've never been there and it looks amazing and I heard they have marimba bands. I don't have a green card yet. I'm here on an Artist's Visa and just missed out on a tour to Europe because I couldn't get back into the country if I went without a green card because of COVID. I'm like everybody else I want to be able to come and go as I please, but things are crazy right now. When I look at my life I think I'm pretty lucky. I have 2 sisters, one older, one younger and a mom and dad who love me."

Debut As A Leader

Her debut album was The Path, released in September, 2020. Given the quality of her chops and the four original compositions the recording deserves wide attention. She added considerable dimension with her mallets to the musical sculptures, descended from Auguste Rodin's larger than life works of art, with Jeremy Pelt on Jeremy Pelt: The Artist in 2019. Jeremy returned Lu's favor with his trumpet on the "Invitation" track on the CD. She also used drummer, Allan Mednard, and percussionist, Ismael Wignall from his band on her debut.

A "Behind the Scenes" Youtube video for the CD shows the musicians offering a prayer just before making the recording. Bassist and producer, Richie Goods, leads the group in asking for inspiration in hope they can lift up their listeners' hearts. Asked if the CD title had anything to do with the Tao Te Ching and where the prayer idea originated Lu answered...

"We always do that. Richie and pianist Shedrick Mitchell are like that. They pray all the time before they perform. In Asia we do it in an Asian way when we play classical music. It is a different kind of prayer but we stop eating or whatever we are doing for 10 minutes before we perform. My CD title does not have anything to do with Tao Te Ching in any specific sense but I get why you asked the question. I grew up in a strict Asian family and we didn't have much money. Music education in China is very strict and so was my mom. I was the middle child. Both my sisters gave up on the music. That might have something to do with me being very responsible and feeling stressed out sometimes. In school I was trained to have perfect pitch. Every day for years from elementary school to college we had one hour of ear training. Now I can picture notes when others play them. I was surprised when I got to the States that many musicians don't have perfect pitch here.

"There came a time in my Chinese music education when I began to feel frustrated, kind of trapped. That's when I started listening to jazz. It made me feel free, like I could breathe again. The "Interludes" tracks on the CD were suggested by my producer Richie to give the listener an idea of my vision. You can't hear all the words on the track while our music is playing, because I didn't have a vision when I came here. I panicked on the plane to Philadelphia when I realized what I was doing was for real."

There's also a Youtube video of her as a percussionist playing Chinese opera music with a group of classically trained Asian musicians that provides similar melodies to what many Western music lovers have only heard in Farewell, My Concubine—on Time's 2005 list of the best movies of all time. What's the energy level difference between playing Chinese opera and Roy Ayers' "We Live in Brooklyn, Baby" with her group in NYC?

"I never thought of that. Thank you for asking, by the way. It's pretty similar. We have no written charts, no sheet music in Chinese opera. We use symbols. For instance if I say, 'ton' the cymbal has to play. You say it, you learn it. It's kind of like call and response. Music composition is emotional for me. I don't have enough music knowledge yet, but I am young and I will learn. I'm not about playing my instrument so that people say, 'wow she's amazing.' Richie Goods told me not to worry, just say what I have to say with my music. If I have this much to say (Lu places her forefinger and thumb a small distance apart) just say that. If you try to say more it just gets boring. Some people show how good they can play their instrument when they don't have anything to say. That's OK, but it's not me. We were on tour with Jeremy Pelt before COVID and Richie asked me the name of my records. I told him I didn't have any. He was really surprised and said he would help me. I didn't know what I was doing in the beginning. Richie produced the CD and really helped me a lot with my confidence. I never feel ready to make a record, you know, everyone is so advanced. I'm just a jazz baby."

Talking about the difficulties facing an Asian woman in jazz she had this to say...

"When I was younger I thought all the problems for a woman in jazz were going to be in the rehearsal room or on stage, but now I'm older and realize it's also about my life. I'm almost 32, I don't have a boyfriend but I still want a family. What happens to my career when I'm pregnant?

"When I go to rehearsal I always wear pants and tie my hair back. I don't want to make a mistake and get a look from one of the guys like...oh she's here because she's just a pretty girl. I don't want to be a person always thinking how hard it is to be Asian and a woman on the jazz scene. Sometimes people will say, ...'oh you must play the violin.' There are two sides to everything, people don't mean anything by it, they just have to learn how things have changed in the world. I was talking to the pianist Bertha Hope, she's 84 I think, about the age culture in music. I wish she told me more about how her life has been but we didn't have much time to talk. She was married to Elmo Hope and lived in New York in the early '60s when there was so much great jazz. Richie Goods said that he already has issues with the age culture. They don't call him as much as they did. More and more they want you to be young. It's crazy to me. When you're older you have more experience and your music is richer, fuller whether you're a man or a woman. We just have to try to stay positive."

Musical Influences

"I just saw Jamison Ross at the Jazz Standard. I really like his music, there's so much love in his music. That's why I like the music so much, because I want my music to have that kind of love in it too.

"Bobby Hutcherson is really amazing to me. It's too bad his music didn't get praised enough until the '80s. I heard he was really a good person and that's really important. It's more than just music, it's about having a good heart. In China I learned to play all the percussion instruments, snare drums, timpani, marimba. We had marimba duets, marimba trios and marimba quartets. When I heard Bobby Hutcherson play the marimba, I was like—wow I got a lot to learn about the marimba."

Steve Nelson is a veteran vibes and marimba player from Pittsburgh who still plays at places like Small's in the Big Apple and teaches in New Jersey. Certainly, the teacher-student relationship between him and Chien Chien Lu accounts for her listing him as influential on her music. He has a long history with a Masters from Rutgers and having played with among others, legends like Jackie McLean, Grant Green, Dave Holland, Mulgrew Miller and Kenny Barron. His vibes teaching chain contains links from Lionel Hampton to Milt Jackson to Bobby Hutcherson. They are the vibes players he recommends to his students.

"I've been studying with Steve for about a year and a half. He's a good teacher and a really good player. I asked him how much I should practice. He got very deep and dark with the question. He's in his sixties now, he told me to keep things in balance, there's more to life than just music. Probably he worries about me getting too stressed out, because of how I was taught in Taiwan, maybe he wishes he was less devoted, but if he was he wouldn't be teaching me.

"That reminds me of something. I was talking to some friends about the movie Whiplash. They all thought the movie was exaggerated. It's about this guy who wants to be a great drummer and his teacher is too hard on him. Well, let me tell you, that's how I was taught in China. I started when I was six years old and if I made a mistake the teacher had a clothes hanger and would hit me (Lu raises her hand to the monitor and shows her arm). I had cuts and bruises all here. That's just the way it was back-in-the-day in Taiwan. So yeah, for me that movie was not exaggerated."

The Future

"In The Path I took some Chinese melodies and arranged them. My next one I want to do more than just arrange Chinese melodies. I want to take the spirit of jazz and mix it with Chinese music. I don't know how yet, but I know I want to do it."

It's always hard to pinpoint where a musician is on the path to artistic maturity. However, it is safe to say she is mistaken when Chien Chien Lu says she is a 'jazz baby.' She is far beyond being an infant and much closer to being a shining star in the jazz sky.

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