all that jazz

Helen Sung Plays Mingus

The Houston native accompanies the Charles Mingus Big Band this weekend at Miller Outdoor Theatre.

By Olivia Flores Alvarez August 16, 2019

Helen Sung performs with the Mingus Big Band at Miller Outdoor Theatre this Sunday.

Pianist Helen Sung plays it coy when asked about the set list for the Charles Mingus Big Band performance at Miller Outdoor Theatre this weekend. “I don’t want to give anything away,” she tells us, although she does confirm the program will include some of famed jazz artist's greatest hits such as “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” There will also be some lesser-known extended compositions, including “NY Sketchbook.”

Sung, a graduate of the Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, counts “Sweet Sucker Dance” and “Self-Portrait in Three Colors” among her favorites in the Mingus repertoire. ​“I’m a sucker for a good melody, and those pieces are heartbreakingly beautiful,” she says.

A classically trained pianist, Sung didn’t discover jazz until she was in college at the University of Texas at Austin and a friend took her to a Harry Connick, Jr. concert on campus. Connick was performing with his big band but at one point sat down and played solo jazz piano. “I remember feeling like I had been hit by lightning, and thinking, ​I didn’t know you were allowed to play the piano like that!​”

Sung admits she never ventured outside of the classical music department at KHSPVA to interact with the school’s jazz musicians, but once she found jazz, she embraced it. (The school’s jazz department embraced her back, adding her to its Jazz Hall of Fame in 2017.) After graduating from UT, she attended the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance program (now the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz) at the New England Conservatory. And in 2007, she joined the Charles Mingus Big Band.

At the group’s core, is a commitment to Mingus’s bold, fearless music. Sung says she’s especially attracted to the way in which Mingus integrates a variety of styles, from raw and earthy to sophisticated and classically influenced.

She notes his works, many of which are considered jazz standards, “are beautiful pieces that are endlessly discoverable. There is always something new ... to explore, to express, to delight in.” She goes on to say, “perhaps most importantly, Mingus’s music sounds so darn good.”

Free. August 17. Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park Drive. More info at

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