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A & E

Artworks: Joliet native bringing jazz to New Orleans North

Miss Sophie Lee & the Parish Suites will perform on June 8 for the 7th Annual New Orleans North in Joliet.
Miss Sophie Lee & the Parish Suites will perform on June 8 for the 7th Annual New Orleans North in Joliet.

Miss Sophie Lee & the Parish Suites will perform on June 8 for the 7th Annual New Orleans North in Joliet.

A fitting act for two reasons.

Lee, a Joliet native, now lives in New Orleans, where Lee first because exposed to its music and made it her own.

"That's the town that lives and breathes it," Lee said. "If I was going to learn it, I came to the right place."

Growing up in Joliet, Lee became immersed in music at a young age. She began piano lessons at age 5 and private violin lessons at age 7, eventually making All-City Orchestra and crediting Joliet violin teacher Mary Smelser as her main influence.

"When I was in junior high, I wanted to quit [orchestra] and try cheerleading," Lee said. "But she encouraged me in a very gentle, yet persuasive way. [She felt] I had a lot of talent and I would regret it if I made it up."

As an eighth-grader, Lee sat in the orchestra pit for the Joliet West High School high school musical "Oliver!" That musical featured two actors who would also become renowned outside Joliet: Andy Dick and Anthony Rapp, Lee said.

After two years at St. Francis Academy in Joliet (now Joliet Catholic Academy) Lee transferred – after seeing a commercial on television for the relatively new school at the time – to the Chicago Academy for the Performing Arts, where she pursued "more intense piano study," as well as the violin.

Where did this love for music originate? From Le''s mother, Moon Ja Lee (deceased)

"My mother was Korean," Lee said. "That's what you did in Korean households. You took piano lessons."

Lee's father had roots in Mississippi and Louisiana, Lee's biography on her website said. Her parents ran a hot dog stand on Woodruff Road, close to where Lee grew up with her family, she said.

After her parents divorced when Lee was 5, Lee's mother worked in Rockdale for a few years and then, when Lee was 11, turned the hot dog stand location into Lee's Store, which she operated until she miraculously survived two aneurysms, when Lee was 27.

"This woman was a machine," Lee said. "She worked 18 to 20 hours a day."

After high school, Lee attended DePaul University in Chicago and studied music. But in her junior year, Lee's piano teacher felt Lee's talent wasn't strong enough for performance, that she should consider music education for her degree.

Lee disagreed.

"I quit," Lee said. "And started a rock band [Adam Jack] as a rebellion against the classical music I'd been doing all my life."

Lee lived in Chicago until her mother's aneurysm and then moved with her to Mississippi to stay with relatives.

In 2001, almost on a whim, Lee, her mother and friend moved to New Orleans. It's where Lee learned jazz, where she met her husband and where she opened her own restaurant: Three Muses

Lee learned about the New Orleans North event from seeing photos friends from Joliet posted on Facebook.

Lee was stunned.

"A New Orleans event in my hometown?" Lee said. "I had no idea."

Lee messaged organizers and, voila!

What can attendees expect from Lee's performance?

"They can expect to hear traditional jazz from the 30s and 40s," Lee said. "And I do a few originals."


Goal: "To keep singing what I've learned from jazz and my own compositions.

Inspiration: New Orleans. It's a very musical town. There's music everywhere, on every corner. Most of my friends are musicians. Everyone is dedicated and hardworking and it has really helped me with my own songwriting."

Words of wisdom: "You have to study, practice and jump in. It's trial by fire. You learn by doing."


• “Traverse This Universe” features six original compositions and five standards

• “Love Street Lullaby” features three of Lee's originals and one short Korean lullaby written (and sung to her as a child) by her mother.

• “Tallulah Moon”, named for Lee’s grandmother’s home town in Louisiana and Lee's mother, Moon Ja, features nine standards and one original tune, the title track.

• "Miss Sophie Lee With New Orleans Jazz Vipers and Special Guest Bart Ramsey"


WHAT: 7th Annual New Orleans North.

WHEN: 5 to 11 p.m. June 8

WHERE: Downtown Joliet

ETC: Mardi Gras-style event. Bands, beer tents, Cajun food, hurricane drinks, stilt walker, jugglers and other street performers. Percentage of the proceeds benefits local charities.

TICKETS: $7 advance, $10 at event


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