CEO and Visionary Chairman David Allen pictured with pianist Ruby Bishop in her home
In the spirit of Swing and Spring, we are launching a Musician Spotlight Series, which will feature some of our advisors and musicians. This month, you’ll be learning about Michael White & Leisei Chen –– a pair of performers that embody the soul of jazz.
At the bottom of the newsletter, you will find an update on the exciting progress we’ve made with the museum.
Thank you all so much for your continued support as we strive to make MOJA a reality.
MUSICIAN SPOTLIGHT l PART ONE
In 1993, Leisei Chen and Michael White felt an immediate pull towards one another. He was performing with a band on stage as she––an up and coming vocalist––admired him in the crowded club.
After the performance, he walked over to her table and said “I am not trying to pick you up, but can I sit next to you? I like your energy.” Ten years later after their initial attraction, the duo reunited to form The Michael White Quintet.
Before meeting, however, each individual was trained on opposite ends of the world in different artistic mediums. Even so, they each enjoyed a wholesome musical career with striking similarity from the nature of their upbringing, to the type of musical education they received, and the subsequent impact the former had on their careers.
At six-years-old, White started taking classical violin lessons with a master violinist from Germany. At seven, he began shining shoes on 7th street in West Oakland––back when it was renowned as a community of jazz and blues clubs.
The jazz scene in Oakland dates back to the 1920s and was influenced by the Chicago and New Orleans styles enjoyed by workers who migrated to work on the railroads. Around 1918, Sid Deering's Creole Cafe featured one of the early big-band legends, Jelly Roll Morton–– known for their New Orleans-style jazz.
In 1921, The Lincoln Theatre opened at 1620 7th Street to offer films and concerts. Notably, Billie Holiday performed there. Around 1933, Slim Jenkins Supper Club was one of the most celebrated venues in Oakland featuring legends like B.B. King, Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr. and Louis Jordan. Rick Darnell and Roy Hawkins wrote "The Thrill is Gone," in Oakland’s "Big Town Records" around 1951, which later became a huge hit for B.B. King.
As he was learning how to play the violin, White was also rubbing elbows with these types of Jazz musicians who, occasionally, let him into clubs after having their shoes shined. Additionally, his cousin, Duke Ellington’s favorite jazz singer, Ivee Anderson also provided White with the ability to meet popular jazz musicians. The juxtaposition of learning classic violin with his proximity to jazz definitively influenced his developing style for years to come.
White’s early musical career was marked by having a foot in both the classic and jazz worlds. While he went on to be the first Black violinist to perform with the Young People’s Symphony of Berkeley, he was also an indispensable musician for Jazz players, who often invited him to orchestras to read charts for the Jazz players who hadn’t learned how.
Both Chen and White were born into environments that shaped their musicality and overall worldview. 7th Street’s jazz and blues clubs were so popular that folks from a wide range of backgrounds came together to enjoy the new sound. Similarly, Chen was born and raised in Kobe, Japan––a multiracial port city with huge influences from outside cultures. As a fifth generation Chinese person living in Japan, she was raised in an environment in which differences were welcomed and celebrated.
Chen began playing the organ at four-years-old and began performing at events when she was five. At seven, she began her classical training in piano. Chen recalls spending endless hours in Jazz Cafes, unique places with thousands of records and endless cups of coffee. It was in these cafes that she fell in love with jazz.
When she was trained in drums and percussion in Japan, she said she was taught rhythm––a grove/swing embodied within her that is necessary to play well. She later went to the Koyo Conservatory, where she majored in Jazz Vocals.
Following her musical education in Japan, Chen decided to move to America to pursue her career. After some time in New York, she moved to Seattle on a whim. A neighbor there persuaded her to attend Cornish College of the Arts to further her musical expertise. During this time, legendary jazz pianist Billy Wallace became her jazz mentor.
Wallace, who played with greats like Max Roach and B.B. King, had just moved to Seattle from Colorado and didn’t have a car. Chen and Wallace formed a symbiotic relationship in which she would drive him to performances and he would teach her lessons that could not be learned in University.
“He could look at a chart and have the visual memory,” Chen said. She describes him as a “talented genius” that taught her via jam sessions.
Next month, the second part of their musician spotlight will continue, where you will read about how their careers were shaped following their early training and their stance on the spirituality of Jazz.
WHAT HAVE WE BEEN UP TO?
At MOJA, we welcomed Spring in the beautiful and lush city of Seattle. CEO David Allen flew out to visit 97-year-old living Jazz legend Ruby Bishop. We were lucky enough to see her play piano, hear about some of her experiences, and even see her close friend Overton Berry perform. Check out our instagram for some footage of Ruby performing at Vito’s! In the image above, Ruby is performing with jazz pianist and close friend, Overton Berry at the Sorrento Hotel.
Documenting her story is one of the many ways we will preserve and raise the awareness of Jazz. We look forward to sharing some more footage captured from the trip shortly.