After three days of phone tag and multiple reports from acquaintances that “he’s a character,” I was finally able to meet Chaz Lee ’11 in person. As we talked, our conversation covered his artistic career as a musician thus far, a story involving Frank Sinatra, Korea and the musical Chicago. As a student conductor of Concert Choir and the Symphonic Winds, a former musical director of the Springstreeters, a vocalist and a talented piano and organ player, Lee may very well have enough talent to perform Chicago as a one-man-show, live orchestra and all. When I asked him how Chicago had inspired him, he replied, “It wasn’t like I spent all day locked in my room listening to the soundtrack.” However, he clarified, the well-known jazz musical did have some influence on his major and on his nickname.
“I grew up doing a lot of traveling back and forth from the States to Korea where I went to high school,” Lee said. “I can speak both languages, but I attended a private English speaking school that was basically in the middle of nowhere.” He related that while in elementary school in the United States, his classmates and teachers would often pronounce his Korean name as if it were Chinese, saying “Chan” like Jackie Chan.
Despite his dislike of their mispronunciation, the nickname “Chan” stuck until high school. It was not until his high school was hit, or rather slapped, by the jazz hands of Chicago that people began to appreciate the type of music Lee had already been listening to. “I was usually the odd man out in terms of musical taste,” Lee said. “I listened to a lot of classical and jazz.” He acquired the nickname “Chaz” when a friend noticed that he would always sign his name in capital letters and in an epiphany, his friend turned the ‘N’ at the end of Chan on its side: So changed the life of Lee forever. “All that Chaz and Jazz,” he laughed. “The pun just stuck.”
Upon arriving at Williams, Lee made an instant impact on the school. Both he and the current director of the Springstreeters, Tim Lengel ’11, were appointed as the “next generation of music directors” while first-years. The moment he knew he would take on a leadership role within the a cappella group was the same moment Lee realized that he wanted to pursue his passion and declare a major in music. Unfortunately, however, his intense involvement in the music department eventually led him to leave the Springstreeters.
Lee is now a student conductor of both Concert Choir and Symphonic Winds. As described on their website, Symphonic Winds is an ensemble “committed to presenting innovative and provocative performances featuring the most significant music written today.” Director Steven Dennis Bodner incorporates music in their performances that, Lee says, is “living and breathing.” He nodded to himself as he described this philosophy, adding that he “adores it and agrees with his director.”
Regarding the relationship between his double major in comparative literature and music, Lee said, “They are informed by one another. While many people complain about how intellectually rigorous the process of being a music major at Williams is, I like being able to discuss music in analytical concepts, in that language.”
When I asked him who he has been compared to or equated with musically in the past, Lee laughed and told me someone once compared his voice to Sinatra’s. While obviously flattered, he said that he preferred having his own sound. He claims Sinatra as a musical influence instead. “It’s how he goes up there and tells a story,” Lee said. “He’s a wonderful communicator.”
Balancing two majors, extracurriculars and a social life can be difficult, but Lee exudes the passion that can so easily get lost in the shuffle of busy purple bubble lives. He clearly loves the music he performs and conducts on a deeply intellectual and personal level. As for the workload, Lee said, “Even if I’m only playing an obscure percussion part in a huge band, I know that every little thing counts, and that I’m improving myself. It’s not always about sounding pretty. It’s about telling a story.”