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06/22/2017
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A tale of many turns – Maureen Choi’s long road to jazz stardom

Maureen Choi has returned.

Once a talented classical violinist at Michigan State University College of Music who somehow wandered into the world of jazz improvisation, Choi is back in East Lansing to perform Friday with her jazz quartet in the Summer Solstice Jazz Festival.

Living in Madrid, Spain, Choi has created a unique jazz style that blends perfectly with her multi-cultural background and her keen skills as a violinist and dancer.

Choi doesn’t stand still. Throughout her life she has searched for her authentic artistic voice and her personal calling.

Music was everywhere in her parents’ house in Kalamazoo.

“My father was an avid music lover, and my mother was a soprano. We always had music playing in the house – almost 24 hours a day. And it was all classical. Culturally Korea is in the classical realm, and my parents were wedded to classical music only,” she recalls.

In her early years, Choi lived in Kalamazoo, Korea, Florida and finally settled in Ann Arbor. And there was always time for music.

“I studied ballet, violin and piano – all very seriously. Finally, at age 12, my mom told me that I had to pick one, I couldn’t do all three. It was no contest, I chose the violin.”

Because of some family circumstances, Choi found herself playing mother to her younger siblings, sometimes even driving them to lessons and school as an underage driver.

Her violin took a back seat for a while, but she began studying at MSU at age 21, displaying great talent.

Although Choi studied classical violin and played in the orchestra, she became fascinated by jazz. “All my friends were jazz cats. And I listened a lot. I was the only classical person hanging out with them.”

Rodney Whitaker, Director of MSU’s Jazz studies, remembers her well. “We used to play jazz at Harper’s in East Lansing, and she was always there. I heard her violin playing and knew that she had talent, so I asked her to join my jazz improv class. I told her that she must be interested or she wouldn’t be here – “there must be a bug biting you.”

Choi says, “I told Rodney that I didn’t have time for jazz classes, I had to practice my Bach.”

Finally, she took the plunge.

“I didn’t really know all the chord progressions, but I have perfect pitch, and I was able to learn improvisation easily.”

It didn’t take long for the light to go on for the young violinist. “I felt so liberated. Improvising opened up a whole new world to me. I was a jazzer, but didn’t know it yet.”

Whitaker was impressed. “Maureen showed jazz talent right away. She had a sense of melody and her violin skills were great.”

Whitaker soon had her playing in his big band, and he worked hard at convincing Choi to change her musical focus to jazz.

Car crash

After graduating in 2007, Choi began working on her master’s degree at University of Minnesota, but her career took a tragic turn.

On the drive from Ann Arbor to Minneapolis, she was in a car accident that almost cost her her life.

“I’m not sure exactly what happened”, she says, “but I broke nine vertebrae in my back and three in my neck. My scalp was almost torn off my head.”

It took two years for Choi to recover. During that time, she decided that she had to be a jazz musician. “I just couldn’t imagine myself playing in an orchestra anymore.”

Back her feet, Choi went to Berklee School of Music, one of America’s best jazz schools. “I always loved to dance, and I suddenly became obsessed with dancing salsa. Soon that moved into listening to all kinds of Latin music and playing it on my violin.

“I started composing, but it always had a Spanish flair. “

So now, Choi began to take her elegant classical violin playing into the exciting rhythms of Latin music.

The jazzer searched for a bass player who knew Latin music to complete her quartet, and she found Mario Carrillo who eventually became her husband.

They moved to Spain, and she is now traveling the world playing Latin infused jazz along with some cool dance moves, and she also teaches at Berklee.

But her jazz journey all began at MSU and on Saturday she will have a chance to show how far she’s come as an international jazz artist.

See the Maureen Choi Group at 7 p.m. Friday at the MSU Outreach and Engagement Education Stage at the Ann Street Plaza.