Welcome to MMI’s Fellow Spotlight series featuring our amazing teaching artists. Not only do MMI Fellows lend their talents to supporting and engaging Memphis youth all over the city, but they also help build and sustain our arts ecosystem through their independent projects. 

Today, meet jazz pianist extraordinaire, Steve Lee! Steve works with Memphis students at Bellevue Middle School and the Overton Jazz Band. In addition to working with MMI youth, Steve is also the founder of the Memphis Jazz Workshop, whose mission is to instill the love of jazz in future generations. He recently chatted with MMI about his journey from Memphis to New York and back again, moving the Jazz Workshop online, and why Memphis’ incredible jazz legacy deserves respect. 

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What I love most about jazz is being able to feel the to and fro of the music—being able to sit down to create different melodies and different chords on the spot. And to be able to play with great musicians. It’s a really great feeling to play with a good drummer and a good bass player.

I wish most people could learn this music. They would understand the feeling that you get when you’re improvising. It’s just a great feeling to be able to play and create out of the unknown, and to start a song, where nothing is written down.

It’s like traveling from New York to LA. There are so many different routes you can take. You can leave New York and go all the way down 95 to Florida and then cut across. Or you can go down 81, to Pennsylvania, then to 40, to take you to LA.

That’s how the music is. There are so many different avenues and different ways you can go to get to the end of the piece that you’re playing.

On making it in New York

I grew up in the southwest part of Memphis, Riverview Elementary, Riverview Junior High, Carver High School. I played in the band in middle school and high school. Actually, I played drums. I really wanted to be a drummer.

But I did play piano at church. I grew up playing in church, and my mother kept me in lessons.

After I left Memphis in 1987 I went to University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where I studied with this world renowned jazz pianist Donald Brown. I was in Knoxville until 1995. After I left Knoxville, I moved to Las Vegas. I played the Las Vegas strip scene.

After that, I got the opportunity to go to Geneva, Switzerland, where I stayed in Europe for about five months, playing at different hotels in Switzerland. On my way back from Switzerland I stopped in Paris for two weeks, where I just thought I’d just not come back to the United States. But I did come back. I came back home for a few months, then moved to New York City in 1997.

In New York, I waited tables at Uno’s. I’d wait tables all day, until maybe midnight, or one in the morning. Then I’d head to the jazz club and play until seven or eight in the morning. Then I’d practice.

At the time I was housesitting all over New York. But the thing about housesitting is, you can’t bring any furniture. So, I couldn’t bring my keyboard. So when I finished the jazz session at Small’s, I’d practice right there for two or three hours. Then I’d go back to the house, clean up, and head back to Uno’s and do the same thing all over again.

But you know, I knew I was in New York. And I knew I was around the best. And I knew that to survive as a musician I had to practice. I worked all over the city. I worked with Esperanza Spalding, Gregory Porter—a lot of artists. They were coming up then.

I did the New York scene. I did my time traveling on the subway with people, and going all through Manhattan to different restaurants and clubs.

On coming home

While I was in New York, I was also the music director for Frederick Price, a well-known minister out of LA, who started a ministry in New York City. Central Park, 96th street. I was the music director of his church for about six years. And all of a sudden, he laid off the music staff.

I had a wife and a daughter—and about $200 to my name. So we moved back to Memphis with that $200.

Around 2010 or 2011, I started teaching for Shelby County Schools, which was Memphis City Schools back then. Then I taught one year at City University Charter School. I also taught at Stax, which was my introduction to the nonprofit world. Then, I started working with Memphis Music Initiative.

When I first came across MMI, I was just trying to figure out what nonprofits are all about. What is MMI? What are they doing here? I would talk to the staff about what it means to start a nonprofit. I was asked, “Do you see a problem in this community?” I said, “Well, yeah I see a problem when it comes to the state of jazz music in Memphis.” And I learned that nonprofit work is about identifying a problem, researching it, and coming up with a solution. And that’s what I did.

I started the Memphis Jazz Workshop, and our first camp was in 2017. We’ve been doing it for about three years now. And we have produced a lot of students that are All-West, All-State. One student I work with just won the Presidential Scholarship to Berklee Music School. Right out of the Jazz Workshop.

On workshopping in the virtual world

When this pandemic first started, I thought I might just stop the Workshop for a while, but the kids told me not to do that. Plus I’m already losing my mind sitting here in the house.

We started meeting with our [Jazz Workshop] students maybe two months ago. We would meet with them every Wednesday, not to teach them, just to see how they’re doing. Because we’re older, we can kind of deal with [quarantine]. But for a teenager, when you tell them they can’t go anywhere, and they’re stuck in the house, they’re like, “Wow, man.”

I started to get more comfortable with Zoom. In early May I decided to go ahead and put together a virtual summer camp. And in the midst of that we started doing these Master Class series—conversations with Grammy award-winning, world-renowned jazz musicians from around the world. We’ve got Ulysses Owens, Randy Brecker, Bob Mintzer.

We’re actually now in our first virtual summer camp, where we started this past Monday. [Given the pandemic], it’s not as bad as I thought it would be. It was challenging. We had a couple of issues, but nothing major. I’ve been sitting here watching CNN and MSNBC, and I see they’re having technical difficulties, so I don’t feel so bad.

On Memphis’ jazz legacy

When you think about cities that have contributed so much to this music, of course you’ve got your New Orleans, you’ve got Detroit, etc. But Memphis is in the top five. Before you even get to New York you’ve got to talk about Memphis with Jimmie Lunceford, who was right out of Manassas High School.

The world knows about Memphis. They know about Stax, and Al Green, but a lot of Memphians don’t know about Memphis’ jazz history. Most Memphians do not know about Phineas Newborn Jr., who was probably one of the best jazz pianists to ever play this music. People don’t know about George Coleman who worked with Miles Davis in the 1950s. They don’t know about Charles Lloyd, James Williams, Hank Crawford. These are world-renowned jazz artists I’m talking about. There are no statues about these people in Memphis. No museums.

It’s just a rich history that nobody’s talking about. So that’s my job. I know this is my calling in life—to continue the legacy of this music and share this music to these kids. Because you don’t want the music to die away.

But I think the Memphis jazz landscape actually has gotten better. Before the pandemic, there was more jazz happening across town. So it’s beginning to pick up. But you need jazz downtown. The tourists, they’re not just coming to Memphis to hear blues. We need nice jazz rooms, where people can come in and enjoy good quality jazz while they’re on a business trip.

There are a lot of kids in this city who play an instrument. If they’re exposed to jazz music just a little bit, they tend to like it. It gives them a way to be creative. Jazz improvisation is about being able to create on the fly. And that’s what these kids are learning. Plus they’re learning so many different life skills. Practice—that’s time management. Discipline. Dedication, awareness, communication skills. There are so many life skills that these kids are learning when they are introduced and learn to play music.

I tell them all the time, “I’m not trying to make you a jazz musician. If you want to do that, that’s another kind of session we should have. But I do want you to see how you can develop life skills by approaching this music, trying to learn this music.”

On his recipe for success in music

Be on time. That’s the main piece of advice I give my students. If I have a gig, I’m at that gig thirty minutes before it starts. You might get almost to the gig, and you forget something. So if the gig starts at 11, don’t leave the house at 10:30.

The other key is humility. I’m 51, but I feel I can learn something from an 18-19 year-old student, when it comes to music, especially if that student is playing on a very high level. Always keep an open mind, and never feel like you’re at the point you can’t learn from anybody. Because you can always learn something from anybody. Keep being humble.

Finally, just speak things into your life. I don’t know how spiritual people are, but I believe in speaking things into existence. Don’t speak negative things into your life. Always speak positive. Whatever you want to do, just speak it. But you’ve got to work at it too.

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I want to thank my operations manager, Lee VanMerkestyn, and Michael Scott, our educational coordinator, because we three work closely together. And we’ve been working together since the beginning.

We have a lot of resources, and we just want teachers to understand that we’re here to help. We’re not trying to get your kids and put them in other programs.

Ultimately, the Workshop is for the kids here in Memphis. Even though I started this organization, this is not my organization. This is Memphis’ organization, so we need support. We need donations, we need students. We want to be a resource to music programs in Memphis.