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EJ Park: Touching Us Softly with Her Song

Victor L. Schermer By

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Her name is EJ Park. She's a young woman from Gwangju, South Korea. She disembarks from a plane in a city and country she's never been to before. She's a singer and pianist with a passion for jazz, and she's enrolled in the jazz master's degree program at the University of the Arts (UArts) in Philadelphia, PA, USA. She wants to be a successful vocalist. She doesn't know anyone, and no one here in the States ever heard of her. What next?

She gets moving. Bold, and with a taste for adventure, Park throws herself into her work and studies, starts getting some gigs, and soon people start noticing her. They hear the simplicity and beauty of her singing. They see her dedication to the music. They are moved by the way she turns a unique phrase on an old standard. Says Park, "You have to know what you want to do in life and persist at it. I listened to an African American jazz singer on television, and from that moment I knew that's what I wanted to do. I have to be strong and be the best I can be."

The singer on TV in South Korea was the great Cassandra Wilson. Such high aspirations and quiet confidence along with her liquid soprano voice and musical discipline are among the qualities that are already leading Park on a path to success.

Park was early introduced to music. Born three years after the 1980 democratic uprising in her home city, and while there was still tension in the air, Park recalls that "My mother sheltered me from the violence I saw on the streets. But she and my father really loved to listen to music. Every morning, my father played records: jazz, classical pieces. Then my mother took me to a pianist for lessons, so I learned classical piano when I was five years old."

A prodigious talent, she gradually found herself gearing up to be a concert pianist. But, in college at Jeonnam National University, she found herself increasingly dissatisfied with the straight-ahead discipline of classical performance, longing for ways to creatively express her inner feelings, and acquiring a taste for singing. Only at her mother's urging did she complete her piano studies, doing so with panache. But that epiphany from listening to Cassandra Wilson stuck with her, and she sought the guidance of Malo, a Korean jazz singer who recommended she enroll at the Dong-Ah Institute for Media and the Arts (DIMA) for jazz studies. Soon thereafter she found an inspiring teacher, Sunny Kim, an avant-garde vocalist who had worked with the trombonist Roswell Rudd and was the first Korean to sing at the Newport Jazz Festival. Kim encouraged Park to study in the United States and walked her through the necessary skill assessment, and soon thereafter the aspiring jazz singer came to Philadelphia's UArts.

In the two plus years since then, Park completed her masters and was instantly hired as adjunct vocal faculty, joining the likes of Anne Sciolla and Mary Ellen Desmond. Beyond those achievements, and at last fulfilling her dream, she has been a busy vocalist and pianist, with over eighty nightclub gigs to her credit, and gospel singing tours with top Korean ensembles.

Sensing her enormous talent, her teacher and mentor, pianist Don Glanden, Head of Graduate Jazz Studies at UArts, brought her on board as vocalist with his acclaimed trio, and she has been a big hit with them at places like the Sullivan's Steak House in Delaware, the Azure Room at the Revel Casino in Atlantic City, the Ubon Thai Restaurant in Wilmington, and the Paris Wine Bar in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia. Robert and Benjamin Bynum, the legendary music entrepreneurs who founded the top Philly clubs Warmdaddy's and Zanzibar Blue, have booked her for their new establishment, the Paris Bistro and Jazz Café, in Chestnut Hill. When people hear her, they want her back. Says Glanden, "It's hard to find a young singer who is as resonant with the listeners and as dedicated to jazz as EJ. People hear an extraordinary level of honesty in her singing, a real desire to communicate. I booked her with bassist Bruce Kaminsky on an off night at Sullivan's, when folks are usually there to eat and drink, not listen, yet everyone was applauding, filling up the tip jar with bills, and people didn't want her to stop singing, they loved her so much. The level of honesty of her singing really reaches the musicians and the audience alike."

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