Former pianist fines new tune in jazz drumming


Jazz drummer Lilian Wu sits with her drums in the Creative Art building for a portrait Thursday, April 16. (Angelica Williams / Xpress)

At center stage in a dimly lit auditorium, formally trained piano player Lilian Wu riffs and shuffles smoothly into her drums, giving music lovers an afternoon of jazz drumming masterpieces.

Wu, who is receiving her Bachelor of Music in jazz performance, grew up playing classical piano and began playing the jazz drums just five years ago. She presented her senior recital for family, friends and former teachers as the first jazz drummer at SF State April 12.

“Jazz really challenges every part of you because as a human being and a musician, it takes an incredible about of work,” Wu said.

Andrew Speight is lecturer in the school of music who has been teaching for the past 15 years. He said he cannot recall another female drummer in the SF State jazz band, a music performance ensemble available to music students.

“(I) admire her persistence,” Speight said. “She’s a really good student and if she keeps that she’s going to be alright.”

Wu’s recital was a collection of music that she composed as well as already existing pieces from other jazz artists like Charlie Parker and Clifford Brown. Wu said she composes music by creating notes based on preexisting pieces and presents them in her own way.

“For me, less is more,” Wu said. “I wanted to move away from everyone playing at the same time, everyone harmonizing at the same time.”

When Wu picked up her first set of drum sticks at the age of ten, classical piano was no longer her genre of choice.

“I knew nothing about jazz until I was 19 years old,” Wu said. “I didn’t even know who Miles Davis was. But my curiosity about it kept me going.”

Jazz drummer Lilian Wu sits with her drums in the Creative Art building for a portrait Thursday, April 16. (Angelica Williams / Xpress)
Jazz drummer Lilian Wu sits with her drums in the Creative Art building for a portrait Thursday, April 16. (Angelica Williams / Xpress)

Wu’s older sister, Melissa Bailey, said that Wu was expected to play classical piano because it was what her older sisters studied.

“Jazz is very different than classical music,” Bailey said. “(With) jazz, you add some personal touches, with classical music you follow the music.”

Bailey said her parents were surprisingly supportive of Wu’s choice to pursue the drums instead of following the traditional Chinese family expectation to play the violin or piano.

“I think she chose it because it was different, she discovered it on her own,” Bailey said.

After her introduction to the drums in her middle school band, Wu started playing gigs with her band Parallelephantin in high school. She was also a part of her high school marching band, which was featured during the Tournament of Roses Parade, as well as the Mark Davis Quintet for two years at SF State.

Speight has known Wu since she began her jazz studies at SF State’s School of Music and Dance three years ago. He said when Wu began, she was determined to learn by asking questions and testing her abilities as a drummer.

Wu said Speight helped her find rhythm and tone by having her listen to different records for inspiration. She recalled listening to albums like “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis, studying early jazz musicians’ recordings and playing for audiences at places like Pier 23 Cafe and Savannah Jazz Club to gain experience as a performer.

“I actually had to sneak into many jazz clubs at the time because I was underage,” Wu said. “I snuck into clubs so I could sit in at the jazz jam sessions.”

Wu said she feels that jazz music has challenged her, not only as a musician but as a person because of the amount of work it takes to perfect and pursue it.

“Jazz is the one genre of music that asks you how well you know every tempo and if you were even aware of tempos such as the ones you hear in jazz,” Wu said.

Wu said she hopes to keep practicing so that she can succeed as a freelance drummer.

“The way to know is to jump off that cliff and see how it’s like,” Wu said. “It might be a challenge but I’m gonna really breakthrough in freelance and hopefully I can make it that way.”