Rising Star: Jacquie Lee

February 28, 2023

When Jacquie Lee was nine years old, she went with her family to see violinist Regina Carter at Birdland. “I had never felt a connection to jazz at that point,” she recalled, “but I saw someone who was a woman and a violinist playing jazz. I idolized her for a long time. We had family connections, and I would get to do private lessons and group lessons with her. She’s so incredible and a very, very nice person.”

Lee, now 17, has actually been playing violin since she was two years old. “I don’t think I had much choice in the matter,” she said. Her mother Rebecca is a classical violinist; her father Mike is a jazz tenor saxophonist. “My mom started both of my brothers and me on the violin,” she explained, “because she believed it was important for all of us to get a grasp of music. In the early part of my life, I was very strongly averse to playing jazz because both of my brothers did it, and my dad did it.” Her brother Julian (27) is a saxophonist and her brother Matt (21) is a drummer. “Then,” she continued, “I got to that age where I really wanted to be like my brothers.”

In her freshman year at Montclair High School, “Covid happened. I was 14, and that’s when my dad stopped working every night. Covid was terrible for a lot of people and for us as well, but my dad could put a lot of focus into helping me practice and stuff. It was amazing to go downstairs and practice with him for two hours.” (see photo above of Jacquie and her father, Mike, in 2021).

Mike Lee is Director of the Ambassadors Combo at Montclair-based Jazz House Kids, the jazz education program headed by vocalist Melissa Walker and her husband, bassist Christian McBride. Jacquie is part of the Combo and the JHK Big Band, directed by trumpeter Nathan Eklund.

In the spring of 2022, when the Big Band was preparing for the finals of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington high school competition, Eklund selected a violin/clarinet duo as one of the band’s performances. “We have a violinist in our group, Jacquie Lee from Montclair High School,” he told me (Jersey Jazz, May 2022), and “We also have one of our saxophonists, Mark Ricco from Lodi High School, whose primary instrument is clarinet. There’s a great tradition of violin and clarinet in the Ellington Orchestra.” For the violin/clarinet duo performance, Eklund selected Ellington’s arrangement of Juan Tizol’s “Moon Over Cuba”, explaining that, “It was really written in spots for a clarinet duo. I realized that it was set up really well to adjust the instrumentation to do it with clarinet and violin.”

Jacquie said she, “really loves how that era of jazz (Ellington) sounds.” And she enjoys adapting the violin to parts originally designed for other instruments. “I think it (the Essentially Ellington performance) was my first time playing a clarinet part. I think I was playing the clarinet 2 part, and Mark was playing clarinet 1. The harmonies were so much fun to learn. When I’m playing in a big band, whatever instrument part I play, I kind of have to figure out things about that instrument. Playing the clarinet part, learning how to make the scoop sound and the vibrato and everything like that, it just felt so natural to do it on the violin. I wasn’t sure how it would go because I’d never played the clarinet part before. I was smiling all the time. It was just so fun to play that part.”

For the Charles Mingus Festival & High School Competition, held February 19 at The New School (Jersey Jazz, March 2023), Lee expressed a desire to add vocals to her violin playing. “I kind of just decided to be a vocalist this year. I asked my Big Band Director (Eklund) if I could sing for the Big Band, and he said, ‘yes’.” 

According to Eklund, playing in a big band as a violinist “often requires her to be sight transposing her parts to play from the trumpet or saxophone music, a big ask for most high school musicians but something that she was clearly up for taking on. She already had a strong, established practice routine on violin, so when she started singing, she immediately applied those skills toward her vocal preparation.”

Lee also sang with her father’s JHK Combo. “Her sudden emergence as a singer in the past year has been somewhat of a shock to all of us in our family and in the Jazz House community,” said Mike Lee. “Looking back on it, we should have known her training as a jazz violinist would be the ideal preparation to sing complicated chromatic passages required by a jazz vocalist. Unlike saxophone or piano, that have one note designated per key, the violin, which requires great precision to define each pitch, means young students must hear a melody in their mind before they have any hope of replicating it. When she started singing in public for the first time last summer, her acclimation to the challenging intervals and harmonies of this music was almost immediate.”

One of the songs performed by Lee at the Mingus Festival was Charles Mingus’ “The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines” with lyrics by Joni Mitchell, who sang it on her 1979 Asylum album, Mingus. “We have this crazy, amazing 13-year-old bass player named Sam Konin,” Jacquie said. “He’s an amazing upright bass player, but he really loves playing the electric bass. So, my dad was kind of trying to find something we could do in the Mingus competition that featured him on electric bass. My dad totally grew up with the Mingus album with Joni Mitchell. It also worked out because he also wanted to have something that I could sing on. They made a new award at Mingus for Sam – The Charles Mingus Electric Bass Award.” (Jacquie won an Outstanding Soloist Award and was also the recipient of a New School of Jazz Scholarship).

“The combo that we have at Jazz House Kids this year,” Lee continued, “is really, really special. I think our rhythm section is absolutely insane. So many great soloists in the combo. I think it really came together in the performance.” (The JHK Combo won the Mingus Spirit Award in the Combo category).

Lee has completed her college applications and auditions. “I think it went really, really well,” she said. “I felt really good about my playing. I can just hope for the best.” Her favorite jazz violinist of the past? “I love Stuff Smith!” she said. “I just think Stuff Smith is one of the most swinging cats in history. He’s so good. I found out about him because I asked Regina Carter who I should listen to. I think she draws a lot of inspiration from him as well. I also really love Ray Nance and the work he did with the Ellington big band.”-SANFORD JOSEPHSON


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