WESTFIELD - Sein (Say-en) Oh, born in South Korea, is like any other 23- year-old young woman. She has hopes and dreams for a bright future.
But unlike most people her age, she is a gifted jazz pianist and hopes for a career where she can play and share her beloved jazz. "I eventually want to move to New York City, where the jazz scene is huge," she says. "I'm hoping to sit in with some of the jazz greats and gets gigs. And I want to teach."
Sein's first experience with jazz was when she was a girl growing up in South Korea, where she heard the music of Bill Evans and bought his CD, 'Portrait in Jazz.' "It's all I had for a long time, so I played it over and over," Sein said. Bob James, a smooth jazz piano musician, from the group Four Play, was also an early influence.
Catch Bruce Johnstone and Sein Oh in an impromptu jazz session at the Patterson Library, at 6 p.m., today.
Her "break" came when she became an exchange student in high school with the family of Richard and Melvia Mellors of Ripley, New York. The Mellors' recognized her talent right away and introduced her to Bruce Johnstone, renowned international saxophone player and Director of Curriculum Jazz Ensemble at SUNY Fredonia. He and his wife, Robyn, reside in Ripley. "Bruce gave me lessons while I was in high school in Ripley," remarked Sein.
After finishing high school in Ripley, Sein went to the University of North Texas where she pursued a degree in music and is now about to finish her MM in Jazz Studies, emphasis on Jazz Piano Performance. It wasn't easy for her, however.
"I had a hard time at first at North Texas," explained Sein. "It felt like everyone was playing at a professional level and I had to catch up. I felt intimated and didn't have any confidence in myself."
"In my freshman year, I went to a faculty jam session. My professor, Stefan Karlsson, asked me if I wanted to play," Sein relates. "I can only play F blues," she told him. Being assured that was fine, she went forward, only to be asked if she could play E flat. "Uh, yeah," she stammered and proceeded to be totally lost, alternately playing E flat, B flat during the number. "I was so embarrassed," she said. "I cried all the way home." Robyn Johnstone, Bruce's wife assured Sein. "It's always better to learn first, rather than bluff your way through." Sein's first real gig came in her junior year; a semester playing at a Dallas Japanese restaurant.
"It's all about the stories," Bruce Johnstone told Sein. "Jazz musicians love to just get together and tell stories about their experiences," he said. "We're rolling on the floor laughing by the time the evening's done!"
Sein has a few stories of her own already. She talks about another gig she had, during her senior year, at North Texas. "For a couple months, about three times a week, I went with a bass player to this woman's house and played for her. There was nobody there, just her and her pugs." Sein laughs. "She would sing to the music and dance around with her pugs."
Sein has been fortunate to be able to play with various jazz groups such as Dave Alexander's Big Band and The Gainesville Swing Orchestra.
She plays piano for services at her church, Spring Creek Cowboy Church, in Texas; and she teaches piano to 5- through 12 year olds at Stomp Music Studios in Keller, Texas.
For her senior recital, Sein played "Infant Eyes" by Wayne Shorter. "I recorded my recital and sent it to Bruce," she said. Bruce told her, "There were a lot of 'wows' when I played it." She has since played with Bruce Johnston locally in the Buffalo area. "When Sein came to Buffalo, she was really amazing," Bruce said.
Sein writes music as well. She and Bruce will be performing one of her original works, "It's Raining Outside," this evening at Patterson Library in Westfield.
"Music is based on speech patterns," Bruce told her. He agrees that a musician can be technically perfect and still not good. "You've got to play to the words to the music, put emotion and feeling into your work," he encouraged. "If there aren't any words, make some up in your head."
Bruce concluded with, "Sein has developed into a valid and believable jazz player. Everything she learned at North Texas she's applied. Last time we played together, it was great fun."
Catch Sein Oh and Bruce Johnstone in an impromptu jazz session at the Patterson Library in West-field between 6 and 7 p.m., today.