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Guggenheim Fellow Helen Sung hasn’t forgotten the first time she heard joyful freedom in jazz. She headlines the 40th Western Invitational Jazz Festival

Kathy Villacorta
Jazz pianist and composer Helen Sung

The 40th annual Western Invitational Jazz Festival has been three years in the making, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. On Friday and Saturday, March 4-5, jazz pianist and Guggenheim fellow Helen Sung will be the guest artist in public concerts with the Western Jazz Collective and the University Jazz Orchestra, and participate in masterclasses that will reach hundreds of high school and college jazz students.

Dr. Scott Cowan, professor of jazz trumpet at Western and director of the festival, says his friendship with Sung began in their student days at the New England Conservatory, and his admiration for her as a person and as a unique jazz artist has only grown. At home in Queens, New York, Helen Sung joins the conversation with Cowan and Cara Lieurance to talk about the weekend and her musical history.

Sung says it was a concert by Harry Connick, Jr that gave the classically-trained pianist an “Aha” moment as she watched the New Orleans singer/pianist entertain an audience with an improvised solo piano set. Access to jazz teachers at University of Texas-Austin helped her make the switch to jazz. Many older jazz artists, notably Clark Terry, made her feel at home in the jazz community. Sung also talks about letting go of the need to make “music that’s never been heard before,” and instead think of it as a language used to communicate with others.