Tonight, the Maureen Choi Quartet lands in Brooklyn for a gig at ShapeShifter Lab. It’s a homecoming of sorts for Choi, a former NYC resident who is a Korean-American violinist from Michigan who now plays Latin music while living in Spain.
Take away the excellent music she makes, which is featured on her album, Ida y Vuelta, and that eclectic background is the initial hook when talking about the 34-year-old. It’s a good one, but it doesn’t even begin to tell her story which, of course, begins with the music. Yet even Choi can’t explain how she wound up playing the music she does these days.
“To be totally honest, I have no idea,” she said. “I just love it and I feel something. Something just ignites in me.”
Spain has been good to Choi and her husband, Mario Carrillo, over the last four years.
She first met the double bassist when they were in school together at Berklee College of Music in Boston. The two moved to New York and had ambitions of taking over the Big Apple, but that didn’t pan out.
“I was working all the time and I never had any money and I got so tired of not having any money,” she laughs. “I was working as a maitre d’ at The Mercer Kitchen and everyone there was an actor or a musician. Anything related to the arts, we were all there.”
There was sporadic success for Choi, as she got opportunities to play on Broadway, Regis and Kelly and with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, but it wasn’t enough to sustain anything resembling a stable life.
“I had okay gigs sometimes, but you just got lucky that month, and I got tired of that,” she said, also recalling the time she fell asleep on the subway after a gig and wound up at the end of the line in Queens.
“I had to take a cab back, and that was all my money from the gig.”
Things weren’t much sunnier for Carrillo, who Choi recalls playing three-hour sets in Japanese restaurants for $30 a night plus dinner and tips.
Eventually, the two decided to give Carrillo’s home city of Madrid a try.
“I said, ‘Let’s try Spain,’” Choi recalled. “‘If I don’t like it, we can always come back.’”
Four years later, they’ve made it their home.
“I’m really grateful to be here,” said Choi, who still loves New York but refuses to put a romantic tint on her time there. “I love New York, of course. But to work there and to suffer and be there for a million years until maybe you get a break and maybe someone sees you, I didn’t find that to be so glamorous.”
Spain is a long way from New York City and even longer from Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Choi grew up. But it doesn’t begin to map the distance from Korea to the United States, a trip taken by the violinist’s mother, whose own path could have been a lot different had fate and circumstances not intervened decades ago.
“My mom was a soprano, and she studied in Vienna,” Choi said. “She stopped studying because she had no money. Korea was so poor when she was growing up, and she was really ahead of her time because women got married after high school. But she not only went to college, but she went and pursued her master’s abroad, which was really ahead of her time. She never finished her master’s, though, because she ran out of money and married my dad.”
The couple moved to the U.S. and three daughters would soon arrive. Choi, the oldest, lived the life of a normal American child, albeit one who was kept busy by violin, piano and ballet lessons. And she was a natural in all three.
“My ballet teacher told my mom that I had to become a ballerina, and my piano teacher told me I had to become a pianist, and my violin teacher told my mom that I had to become a violinist,” she laughed. “So when I turned 12, my mom said, ‘Okay, you have to pick one because if you want to be good at anything, you have to pick one focus.’ And I don’t know why, but I just picked violin without even thinking about it. Maybe it was just so obvious to me that this was my voice.”
A year later, everything changed when Choi’s father left the family.
“I kind of became the mother of the family and mom became the father,” she recalls. “My mom was working all the time and I was taking care of my sisters. So I had to make decisions all the time on my own.”
Choi’s mother did what she had to in order to take care of her children, and you can hear the admiration in her daughter’s voice when explaining those times.
“My mom couldn’t really speak English very well, she opened up a dry cleaner’s and she was working a job that she absolutely hated,” Choi said. “She was miserable every day but she had to do it because she was an immigrant and didn’t have options. She had to take care of me and my two younger sisters. So a lot of crazy stuff was going on, but my mom was working this job and was miserable, but she taught us that we have to do what we love.”
It was a lesson not learned until several years later.
When Choi describes life as a violinist, she says, “It was under my chin since I was two.” That’s a long time to do anything, and while she proudly plays today, at 18 she put the violin down.
“I wasn’t sure why I was playing it,” she said.
What followed was a string of jobs as she searched for that reason…and found it.
“I got a job at Starbucks, I worked as a secretary in a doctor’s office, sold women’s clothing, worked at my mom’s dry cleaners and tried a bunch of different things. But I always came back to the violin. So after a while, I decided not to go back and forth anymore, so I went back to the violin, I went to Michigan State and that’s when I decided I was going to be serious again.”
At the time she returned to school and began college at 21, dancing returned, and once ballroom dancing introduced her to Latin rhythms, Choi had found new life in an old passion once more.
“I would go out at night to dance and blow off steam and that’s how I fell in love in Latin music,” she said. “I had never imagined playing it because dancing and practicing violin were completely different. I really kept them separate until I went to Boston and I met people from all over the world but became really good friends with people from a lot of Spanish-speaking countries. They would ask me to play in a band and in their recitals, and once I started playing, I felt not just a sense of liberty, but okay, I can really do this and take off. So I started composing, and the first set of compositions I ever made were all in the style of Spanish folklore and Spanish music.”
She would even mix the two, much to the chagrin of her mother, who didn’t hide her opinions.
“My mom is quite conservative, so she kind of hated the fact that I was dancing,” Choi laughs. “I was dancing Salsa and Argentinean Tango and I actually had a gig where I played the tango and then I put my violin down and I danced the tango. And when she saw that my leg wrapped around some other guy’s leg, she didn’t love that very much. (Laughs) So at the beginning, when she saw that I was going out and dancing a lot, she was like, ‘Maureen, how do you have time to go dancing when you’re supposed to be a violinist? You’re supposed to be practicing all the time. What kind of violinist has time to go out dancing at night and wake up tired the next day? You need to focus.’ But she had to accept it after a while because I wasn’t gonna stop, I wasn’t gonna give up, and I was doing what I wanted and what I loved to do.”
That insistence on doing what she loved to do came to her after a winter’s day in Minnesota between her graduation from Michigan State University and her enrollment at Berklee. It was a day Choi can’t remember, but she will never forget it, nonetheless.
What she does know is what she was told when she woke up after a horrific car crash that nearly took her life at the age of 25. It was an interesting but confusing time for the violinist, who was trying to figure out the next chapter in her life, one that got some twists and turns after studying with Rodney Whitaker got her addicted to playing jazz.
“By that time, all my friends had jobs,” she said. “So I felt this pressure to get on it and get an orchestra job, get a teaching job, go get your doctorate or something so I could get a stable job. But my ear kept pulling and kept saying, jazz, jazz, jazz. Do you just think you can start a new path and start a different career? Stick to the classical thing and try to get a job. I was completely divided between classical and starting something new. I was back and forth all the time.”
Then came the crash as she returned to the University of Minnesota for her second semester of graduate studies there.
“When I see the pictures of the car, I just start crying,” she said. Choi wasn’t wearing her seatbelt that day, but that decision may have kept her alive. “I flew across the highway and landed in the middle of the other one. I was going west, I landed east outside of my car in the middle of winter. I flew out of my car because I wasn’t wearing a seat belt, and that’s actually what saved my life because the driver’s side was completely crushed in.”
As she flew from the car, her scalp was ripped open by the windowsill, requiring 29 staples. That was the good news. When she landed, Choi broke nine vertebrae, three in her neck, including the cervical 2 vertebrae the late actor Christopher Reeve broke and two in her thoracic spine. Remarkably, Choi survived, but as she was fitted for the body cast that she would wear for two months before going through grueling rounds of physical therapy, her mother was given even more bad news by the doctor treating her daughter.
“He told my mom that I was probably not going to be able to play the violin anymore. My mom asked, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Because I play the violin.’”
Choi’s mother didn’t tell her what the doctor said for over a year. By then, Choi was in the midst of physical therapy and getting her life back in order. It was a hard recovery, but when she did, a violin was in her hand.
“I didn’t imagine that I wasn’t going to play again,” she said, and while it took a brush with death to do it, Choi had found her path. “And I basically escaped death. I’m not going to question classical or jazz. I’m just going to do what I love and that’s it. I auditioned for Berklee, got a scholarship and I went. No more questions.”
Somewhere, her mother smiled.
Today, Choi readily admits that the car accident when she was 25 “Was a life changing moment for me. I know it’s cliché to say that, but it really was.”
Luckily, that life change was for the better, but then again, Choi always seemed to be someone who chased after life and didn’t just let it happen to her. She won’t deny that description.
“It’s in my nature and it’s part of my character, but it was also character that was built by life circumstances. But definitely after the accident, it was more clear.”
The Maureen Choi Quartet plays ShapeShifter Lab in Brooklyn, NY tonight, June 28.