Musician Spotlight l Exciting News

July 20, 2016


In this edition of our newsletter, we would  like to begin by apologizing for the delay in our newsletters. We have made considerable efforts in the last few months to move the museum along and we are working to establish transparent and continuous communication with our supporters.


It’s also important to acknowledge our Principal Funding Champions, Kat Taylor and Tom Steyer. Without their continued generosity and financial support, we could not continue to make this museum a reality. We have the utmost gratitude for their belief in our endeavor. We sincerely thank you.


In addition, we invite you to visit MOJA’s media page, where we have never-before-seen video footage of 97-year-old pianist Ruby Bishop. The video includes an interview with CEO and visionary chairman, David Allen, as well as some clips of the jazz pianist in her element.


The rest of the newsletter is a continuation of our Musician Spotlight series, with the second part of our Michael White & Leisei Chen focus. The first part of their story can be found here.


Just recently, we learned that Michael has been hospitalized but is in stable condition. Please keep them in your prayers.








Michael White and Leisei Chen engaged in mentorships with notable Jazz musicians in the later parts of their careers. These relationships created indispensible experiences that irrevocably shaped their musicality and spirituality.


Although the 7th Street Jazz scene influenced Michael White a great deal as a young musician, it was ultimately the simultaneous teachings of classic and jazz music that shaped his musicality.


Throughout his childhood, White recalls spending summers with his uncle in Houston, Texas, who owned a jazz club. It was during these trips that White really learned about jazz. Around the same time, he was invited to play classic violin in various orchestras including the All-City Orchestra and Young People’s Symphony of Berkeley.


Following high school, White served as a soldier for the American Army during the Korean war. After a year and nine months fighting on the front lines, White was honorably discharged and awarded a Bronze medal for his service.


Upon arriving home, White decided to pursue his musical career once again. He joined the John Handy Quintet at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1965. He went on to record three albums with Handy.


White then moved to New York and played in the Sun Ra Arkestra for several years. During this period, he worked in close proximity to Jazz giants like John Coltrane and Sonny Greenwich. White describes these relationships as “sort of like a mentorship,” where he picked up a great of knowledge about jazz, creativity, and composition.  


In 1993, Chen and White met in the Seattle Jazz scene. Chen had just moved to Seattle from Japan, after an extensive musical education in Jazz vocals and various instruments such as the piano and drums.


She was attending the Cornish School of the Arts with the goal of grasping a deeper understanding of what jazz meant. During this period, she was mentored by pianist Billy Wallace and bassist Buddy Catlett. Crucially, these mentorships changed her relationship to music––she learned to let go of all worries, to just sing.


“Being with jazz legends helped me understand the spirituality of jazz,” Chen said. “It’s about living in the moment––those things you can’t really learn from school.”


During that night in 1993, Chen was slated to perform at a nightclub before deciding to pull out. Coincidentally, White replaced her in the show, and in that moment, they both felt a magnetic pull towards one another. After the performance, White approached Chen at her table to tell her that he loved her energy.

“His aura was so big and his violin sound was so beautiful,” Chen said. “I was feeling so good listening to him.”

For years, they knew of each other and even nodded in passing during neighborhood strolls, but kept a distance. It wasn’t until 2003––ten years later––that they would combine their musical forces.  

Chen was praying for a band that needed her unique sound, while White was looking for a vocals for his band. By chance, they were reunited and have remained together ever since.

“Music should be healing––a unifier––that’s where I see the music that we do comes from” White said. “You do it for the good of the universe, of people, and how your music transforms those around you.”




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