By Darlene Donloe
Lee England Jr. has single-handedly made playing the violin cooler than cool.
At 31, the Waukegan, Ill. native, who calls himself The Soul Violinist, has taken the traditional sound of a violin, added his signature groove and interpretations, resulting in a sound that is fresh and innovative.
In the hands of England, the violin, long considered a customary and somewhat conservative instrument, has become an incredibly emotional and sexy apparatus that evokes a myriad of emotions.
With his violin England, who also plays viola, cello, bass, guitar, drums and piano, puts a different spin on pop songs, R&B hits, and anything other genre that catches his ear. He’s known for his fusion of R&B, jazz, hip-hop and classical styles that produces an original array of music.
England, who has three music degrees (BS in Music Education, BS in Audio Engineering and a BA in Violin Performance) from Southern Illinois University, has performed, as a featured act, for Jay-Z & Beyonce, Rihanna’s Diamond Ball, the NAACP Image Awards and the John Wayne Cancer Institute. He has appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live, the Mo’Nique Show, and on Sean “Diddy” Combs’ Making the Band.
To hear England play the violin is to witness something extraordinary. His playing is so exceptional and inventive that he caught the attention of Quincy Jones and Michael Jordan.
As fate would have it, a tour stop during All-Star Weekend landed him at a dinner celebration for Michael Jordan’s birthday. After his performance, Jordan offered Lee an endorsement through the Jordan Brand to support his artistic endeavors, a spot usually reserved for athletes, making Lee one of four non-athletes to represent the brand.
Quincy Jones was also blown away by England.
“Lee England Jr. is a remarkable talent that comes by very rarely, creating original and unique music straight from his soul,” said Quincy Jones. “His imagination and musical innovation speaks to all of us, reinforcing that music is, indeed, a universal language.”
England, a LA resident, will appear for one-night-only at a fundraising event presented by Quincy Jones at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood Monday, June 22. The event benefits the Playhouse’s education and outreach programs.
I recently caught up with England to discuss his beginnings, his career and, of course, his music.
DD: What can we expect from your show at the Gil Cates Theater on June 22?
LEJ: A phenomenal showcase. For people who have never seen me before it’s, how do I explain, uh, it’s going to be something they’ve never seen before. It will be an experience to remember. It’s unforgettable.
DD: Who is your audience?
LEJ: My demographic is all over the place. It’s international. No bias, it’s everyone from children to more seasoned.
DD: Where do you go mentally, emotionally when you play?
LEJ: I go to a space that I feel is more soulful and spiritual. I try to translate what I feel so that the audience listening knows they can love and change the world. I go to a place of love and compassion.
DD: Is the audience’s response important for you while onstage?
LEJ: Of course you want people to understand and like what they hear. I don’t base how I feel on how the crowd is reacting, though. There are two types of crowds. There will be people who are totally blown away, who don’t know to clap or sing along. Then, you have those who have seen me for the first time and want to move around and dance. Others want to sit. Some go along with whatever I say. I don’t base what I’m doing on how they are reacting. I’ve been where it looks like someone is not paying attention. And then others come up after the show and tell me it was emotional. If I can reach one person, let me concentrate on just that person. I close my eyes and hope they are receiving the message I’m sending out. Sometimes when I open my eyes they are even more attentive.
DD: Your bio says you blend diverse genres like hip-hop, jazz, R&B, and classical to create original interpretations. How many interpretations do you usually go through before you know you have it?
LEJ: A whole lot. When I’m with my band and we’re rehearsing we go with what feels right. But it’s subject to change. We can go through different genres in a song.
Sometimes we’re just flowing in the same vein.
DD: How did you get started?
LEJ: I come from the same hometown as Jack Benny. He put money back into the arts, the fine arts. Because of that I understand about giving back. If not for that I wouldn’t be here. I’m all about giving back and being inspirational.
DD: There is a cute story about how your father got you to practice the violin.
LEJ: I heard my teachers playing the violin and loved it. I asked my parents for a violin. My parents bought me a violin. I started playing and it sounded terrible. I thought, “This is not a violin.” This is not the way the teacher made it sound. I quit. My father said, “Sure you can quit, you just have to play 15 minutes a day. In my mind I heard my father agreeing with me. I was practicing to quit. I was doing 15, then 30 minutes, then an hour. Now I’m in love with the violin.
DD: What does music mean to you?
LEJ: Music is an outburst of the soul. It’s a canvas where I can paint pictures with sound.
DD: Musically speaking the violin isn’t considered a cool instrument. When you decided that was your choice – any backlash or teasing from your crew?
LEJ: I had it made up in my mind even at 6 or 7. They asked me in church what I wanted to be. I said a professional basketball player and if that doesn’t work I’m going to be a professional violin player and make it cool. It was so hilarious to me. I thought about it recently. What little kids talks like that. That was the foundation that my skill and love was built upon.
Lee England, Jr.
DD: Did you care if your friends thought it was cool?
LEJ: – I remember one time, I fought my whole life to get over stereotypes. In the 7th grade some kids teased me. They teased me a lot. My best friend who was popular in school, was like, “Uh, but he’s good though so leave it alone.” That was the last I heard of it until I went to
DD: Is role model a title you’d like to take on?
LEJ: I feel like if I can inspire someone, I can take that. I know how I feel about the people who have been influential in my life. I’m a product of their talent. I used it to become who I am.
DD: Do you still consider yourself a hip-hop artist?
LEJ: I call myself The Soul Violinist. It doesn’t matter what genre I’m playing. It’s about emotion. You’re still going to get the same feeling and the same song. I’m not putting myself in a box. I hated being called the hip-hop violinist. Don’t put me in a box.
DD: What is your favorite kind of music?
LEJ: I’m creating. My favorite style of music is one no one has heard before. Maybe you’d hear everything. Sometimes classical, R&B, hip-hop, bluegrass, jazz, everything. If I have down time I’m creating.
DD: Finish this sentence. If I couldn’t play the violin or any of the instruments I love… I would…..?
LEJ: Be an astronaut. That’s the greatest roller coaster man has created. I’d be famous for something else. I love the idea of flying.
DD: What is the process by which you choose to sample a song. You’ve done Drunk in Love, If I Ain’t Got You, Stay With Me….what do you hear in those songs?
LEJ: I could play any song. When I started teaching I told them I could play anything anyone can hum or sing. I did a lot of street performing. You have to seduce people right on the spot. You have to figure it out. Figuring out what people like is what drives me. Sometimes it’s very surprising.
DD: You are a former Chicago Public School music teacher. Do you miss or keep in touch with any of your students?
LEJ: I sure do. I have students come back to me and tell me things I told them helped changed their lives. I’ve mentored a few guys. It’s a beautiful thing when they reach out and tell me something I told them changed their lives. I get messages here and there through social media.
DD: Quincy Jones and Michael Jordan. Talk about what each one of these men mean to you.
LEJ: I have this saying, “When I decided to walk the path that was meant for me, Michael Jordan gave me shoes that made me fly.” He took a liking to me instantly. That changed my life forever. To use Michael Jordan’s name and say I’m his violinist is crazy. I’m the only violinist to be signed to Brand Jordan. I’m one of only four non-athletes. Being able to drop his name is kind of, uh, it was life changing. And then there are the clothes and shoes and stuff that has kept me ahead of the curve, plus not having to buy Jordans.
I have so much respect for Quincy Jones and his legacy. What he’s accomplished. When I met him, I already knew we had so much in common. First thing he asked me was who did the arrangement for a song I played that night. I said, I did. That was the catalyst for everything else. He looked at me and realized I arrange, compose and play instruments.
DD: What do you do when you’re not creating music.
LEJ: I like to do things I haven’t done before. I understand technique. I’ve learned languages, I cook, do poetry and play sports. I try other things. Things outside of my comfort zone. Things out of my box.
Quincy Jones Presents Lee England Jr., The Soul Violinist, Monday, June 22, 2015, 7 p.m., Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, Tickets ($29 to $49) are currently available in-person at the Geffen Playhouse box office, via phone at 310.208.5454 or online at www.geffenplayhouse.com. Fees may apply.