Deep in Thoughtful Music: Kenji Lee and the Canterbury House Concert Series
Saxophonist Kenji Lee is a final year University of Michigan student who is entering his third year as Concert Series coordinator at Canterbury House, the home of U-M’s Episcopal Chaplaincy, and a welcoming space in which U-M music students, their friends, and local and touring musicians can share their work and have fellowship amongst themselves and the broader community.
Journey to U-M Ann Arbor
Lee arrived at the University of Michigan in the fall of 2015 to pursue a degree in jazz studies. After graduating from high school in Laguna Beach, Calif., he had considered what other universities and geographical locations could offer him in terms of professional and personal development, Lee decided that the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor was the best fit for multiple reasons. He was drawn by the strength of the U-M jazz studies faculty, particularly bassist Robert Hurst of whom his mentor Roger Shew had spoken very highly, as well as saxophonist Andrew Bishop and pianist Benny Green. Further, the prospect of becoming a part of and learning from Detroit’s jazz community had a great appeal to Lee. He expressed the pull thusly:
I came out here for the purpose of -- these are literally my heroes that I'm studying with -- like Benny Green, too and, yeah, and Andrew Bishop. I grew up listening to these guys on records and was obsessed with these guys before I even got to meet them. In that regard, it was kind of a no-brainer for me to come here because it's basically the same way that I've been reared musically already through this mentorship thing -- really close personal mentorship. I was like, "OK, I could extend that in Michigan," and I also recognized the proximity to Detroit and I was really interested in that. And then to be blunt about it, it was like I recognized that I was 17, 18 years old and I was like, "I could go to New York," right, you know? But I also don't know that it will be OK going into such a big pond like that, you know. ... It was a safe decision for me to be here but I don't regret it whatsoever.
Lee maintains a busy schedule. He is a highly engaged student who performs regularly around Southeast Michigan while holding down duties at Canterbury House. During his time at U-M, Lee has enjoyed beautiful friendships and collaborative professional relationships with drummer David Alvarez III and bassist Brian Juarez, both of whom have graduated from the jazz studies program. Last summer, the trio made a very memorable Southern California tour. It was not only a great time for professional exposure but also for the deepening of the brotherhood among the three young musicians.
Lee and his comrades wowed audiences at A2 Jazz Fest 2017 when they presented SAKURA -- a project showcasing the fruits of a collaboration between the trio and a string quartet featuring classical music students Teagan Faran, Lindsay Sharpe and Madeline Warner.
During this performance, Lee spoke with a deep sense of conviction regarding the importance of respecting jazz as black music, understanding its historical underpinnings and the social responsibility that goes along with composing and performing the music. As we sat for a chat late last year, Lee revealed that his depth of feeling on this issue had arisen from the impact of deep conversations with his beloved mentor, the late Roger Shew. These conversations had begun from around the time Lee was in the sixth grade. Shew had told him, "You need to have reverence for this music. You need to recognize your privilege and recognize why do you feel like it’s OK for you to do this but why is it also necessary that you do this."
Lee has continued to contemplate these and related questions.
Concert Series Coordinator at Canterbury House
Lee became Canterbury House’s Concert Series coordinator at the request of drummer Nicole Patrick who needed to vacate the position in the spring of 2016 as she prepared to move to Detroit. Excited by the opportunity, Lee undertook the position during late spring 2016. He did so while well-possessed of an understanding of the lineage in which he found himself given the fact that “every single concert coordinator has gone on to be incredibly successful in the industry.” The list of his predecessors includes people like jazz musician, professor, prolific composer, and author Stephen Rush and Woody Goss of Vulfpeck fame.
Initially, Lee’s booking endeavors had a strong straight-ahead focus. Thus, he called “every bad-assed straight-ahead musician” to let them know of his plans. He soon had a change of heart, having realized that “any type of music that is good can be performed here.” He started to cross paths with “killin’ musicians” representing multiple genres and discovered that “there are some incredible free improvisers here, there are incredible classical musicians here, there are incredible straight-ahead musicians, and there’s singer-songwriters and all this stuff.” Naturally, many of these musicians were colleagues at U-M’s School of Music Theater and Dance. However, there were also professional musicians representing a broad range of musical influences who reached out to Lee, having heard through the grapevine that Canterbury “is a cool venue.” Further, Lee credits Stephen Rush with helping to broaden his approach, having “really instilled these ... values of diversity in music and everything else in me.”
In effect, Lee “started to lose this baggage of wanting to be a straight-ahead musician” and recognized “that good music is good music.” Ultimately, he resolved, "Dang, I’m going to give everyone I can the chance to play as long as I think it’s good. You know there’s that Ellington quote that there’s two types of music -- good music and the other kind, or something."
With thoughts such as these spurring his efforts to create a welcoming and inclusive space for musicians, Lee shared that it had been important for him to be the person to make it known that "hey, you can play Cage’s '4’33' or Sun Ra here and then the next night, you can play Horace Silver’s compositions and the next night you can play [tunes from] Miles Davis’ second quintet. It doesn’t really matter."
Lee’s central concern is that the music be “thoughtful.” Therefore, he has tried to book artists that he feels are “thoughtful about their art-making and are thoughtful about society and are thoughtful about the way things are in the world.” Not only is this approach consistent with Lee’s worldview but with Canterbury House’s engagement with and support for social justice work.
Engaging Musicians for Performances and Fellowship
Given his knowledge of U-M music students as well as their knowledge of him and his role at Canterbury House, it has not been at all difficult for Lee to book students musicians for performances at the House. With respect to touring musicians indicating interest in playing at Canterbury, the word-of-mouth channel has also been key, with former Concert Series coordinators Nicole Patrick (Detroit) and Rachel Mazer (Los Angeles) named among those central to the network. Basically, it’s been a matter of "hey so-and-so told me that Canterbury House is a fun place to play in Ann Arbor and they said that you were booking for it. So it’s usually like that.”
Many sessions at Canterbury House combine a specially featured U-M student group with an open community jam session. Lee maintains student engagement even when touring musicians are set to perform, as he typically books a student combo to open for the touring headliners. Lee has chosen to employ this format based on the realization that students will come out to see people that they know but might be less likely to attend shows featuring touring musicians of whom they’ve never heard.
For Lee, the value of this approach lies in expanding capacity to draw larger paying audiences and facilitate networking opportunities that can lead to the development of long-term musical relationships among student and professional musicians. For example, Lee spoke of being able to direct a younger student to Southeast Michigan’s own Marcus Elliot whom he described as “a community leader and next level improviser” and “this thousand-year-old man in a 20-something-year-old’s body.”
It truly brings Lee joy to help new students connect with members of the broader musical community from whom and with whom they can experience deep learning on a musical and personal level.
Audiences at Canterbury
While there are many Music students who happily come to Canterbury to watch performances and relax with their friends, Lee acknowledged that some people felt conflicted about attending concerts in a space that was also a church or chaplaincy. In this regard, he simply said, "I think that people assume because this is an Episcopal ministry, it’s like you’re going to get pushed some message into your face about God or this stuff. And it’s like, yeah, you can if you come to service. If you come the concert series, you’re not going to get that, you know, and you can if you want it -- which is the beautiful thing."
For Lee, who was “not raised in any sort of religious fashion,” there’s never been any discomfort. Further, he has endeavored to let it be known that the concert series is secular and, more important, “the music that goes on here is really at a high level.”
As Lee completes his final year at U-M and as concert series director at Canterbury, he hopes to make this season (academic year 2018 to 2019) the biggest one yet!
2018 New Season at Canterbury House
August 30, 9 pm
Just ahead of the official start of the new season, the House will host Annick Odom (solo bass/voice). In 2014, Annick graduated from the University of Michigan with three bachelor’s degrees: BM in Clarinet Performance, BM in Double Bass Performance, and a BA in Psychology with honors. She is currently in the final year of a master’s degree in New Audience and Innovative Practice at the Koninklijk Conservatorium Den Haag and has also started studying Music Education According to the Kodaly Concept. She has played both the clarinet and double bass in orchestras and wind ensembles and loves freely improvised music.
Welcome Home Party
September 7, 5-11:30 pm
Each new season (fall) at Canterbury House starts with the Welcome Home Party -- somewhat of a “collage concert.” Upward of 20 artists and musicians will be involved. Attendees can expect to hear an array of bands (primarily Jazz), poets, dancers, rappers, and DJs. Among the bands are the Emma Aboukasm Quartet featuring Emma Aboukasm (voice), David Ward (drums), Aidan Cafferty (bass), and Jordan Anderson (piano); Juarez-Lee-Alvarez featuring Brian Juarez (bass), Kenji Lee (saxophone), and David Alvarez III (drums) with special guest Andrew Bishop; saxophonist Kasan Belgrave’s Chaotic Beauty; Front Porch -- a new-music group featuring violin, bassoon, piano, and percussion; Adam Kahana (solo guitar); and Stymie (hip-hop). Also, expect to hear stand-up comedy from Daniel Kumapayi.
Jin Kim and Friends
September 8, 8 pm
Jin Kim presents a concert featuring a variety of musicians (to be announced).
Phil Schurger Quartet featuring saxophonist Greg Ward
September 26, 8 pm
Chicago jazz heavyweight Phil Schurger brings his quartet featuring saxophonist Greg Ward to the House. Chicago Artists Resource says,“Phil Schurger’s wide-ranging compositions and colorfully intense guitar playing are a rare treat: a cinematic meditation -- blending rock and jazz with a sense of both drama and the mystical.” Greg Ward has been described as “one of the most versatile jazz musicians of his generation, with a deep-seated curiosity that drives him to push himself into new territory” (Peter Margasak, Chicago Reader).
October 4, 9 pm
Front Porch is a new music group featuring violin bassoon, piano, and percussion. This group is also listed for the Welcome Home Party.
Jennifer Pollard is a doctoral candidate at U-M's Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education. She is also the organizer of the LiftingUpA2Jazz page on Facebook and distributes a weekly newsletter reflecting similar content via firstname.lastname@example.org.
For further developments, stay tuned to the Canterbury House website at canterburyhouse.org and Concert Series Facebook page. You can keep abreast of the jazz happenings in the Ann Arbor area by following the Facebook page LiftingUpA2Jazz. Connect with Canterbury House: The Reverend Matthew Lukens – Chaplain; Kathleen Peabody – Office Manager; Kenji Lee – Concert Series Coordinator; 721 E. Huron Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48104. 734-665-0606. Email: Canterburyhouse@umich.edu.