"The Spiritual Jazz Master": Leisei Chen's Tribute to Violinist Michael White

Jazz violinist Michael White (1930-2016)
Jazz violinist Michael White (1930-2016)
Masami Goto

[Editor's note: L.A. Weekly was contacted by jazz vocalist Leisei Chen regarding her husband of 13 years, violinist Michael White, who recently died. This is her remembrance of and tribute to her late partner in life and music.]

Emanating a rippling aura, shining and bright, he slowly walked up to the stage. He was just as free as a bird, soaring, his energy resonating through the whole band and his warm, unique sounds embracing the entire club. I was simply mesmerized by him. “Who is this man?” I wondered. I really loved his sounds, and my inner voice said clearly, “Someday you will play music with him.”

Next thing I knew, he was off the stage and came to my table, saying, “I am not trying to pick you up, but can I sit next to you? I like your energy.” This was my first encounter with Michael White, in 1993.

Ten years later, miraculously, we reunited. Michael said that for many years he had been looking for a unique sound, which would entail a female voice and romantic intimacy, to complete the concept of his band. When I later joined his recording project Voices, I witnessed how he drew the best out of all the musicians, making space for creativity and allowing uniqueness to blossom individually and collectively. He weaves in his blessed quietness, kindness and peace spontaneously and organically, while driven internally by a rich reservoir of passion. He lives in the now: the essence of jazz. Michael reminded me how, in jazz, synergy between musicians is of the highest importance.

Soon we became partners in life and music, pursuing our mutual artistic visions and endeavors, staying true to our cores. The Michael White Quintet was born, and it became our life’s vital mission. As time went on, I discovered that Michael White is also a truly groundbreaking living legend, a jazz violinist and composer whose spirit, concept and sound continually open and heal the bodies, minds and spirits of listeners around the world.

Born on May 24, 1930, in Houston, his musical life began more than seven decades ago at age 6 with his Western classical training under maestros from Germany and Italy. He was the first black violinist to perform with the Young People’s Symphony of Berkeley. He grew up in a house on Seventh Street in Oakland in the mid 1930s to ’40s, which was such a vibrant place, surrounded with many jazz clubs like the Harlem Renaissance in New York. His family went to see his cousin Ivie Anderson, who was Duke Ellington’s favorite singer, when Ellington's Orchestra came to town. Jazz violinist Ray Nance was a member of the orchestra, and he became Michael's childhood hero. Michael would later perform with Nance in the Jazz Violin Summit at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1970s.

MIchael White
MIchael White
Masami Goto

Michael put aside most of his classical training in order to develop his own techniques and cultivate a sound that he felt suited violin as a solo leading instrument in jazz and modern music. He also lived and worked his way through tradition to innovative progressions of jazz. He performed with luminaries such as John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and countless others, and as part of the John Handy Quintet, a multiracial band, who gave the first live performance at the Watts Towers Arts Center one day after the 1965 riots, serving as a symbol of peace.

In 1969, Michael co-founded the first jazz fusion band, The Fourth Way, with whom he became one of the first violinists to experiment with electronics on the violin. As a bandleader, he composed and recorded 12 major albums that included more than 45 original compositions, and he toured nationally and internationally. Albums such as Spirit Dance, Pneuma, The Land of Spirit and Light and The X Factor have been reissued in recent years, some four decades after their original release dates, as a result of high demand from new and old listeners alike, who call Michael their “Spiritual Jazz Master.”

"My music is coming from raising awareness of positive human consciousness and my contribution to humanity at large through spiritual cornerstones and vibrations from the cosmos," Michael wrote in his artist statement. "I carry the torch for jazz, America's original art form, and all it represents for the good of mankind. ... I transport messages from another dimension, translating musically into this dimension and acting as a bridge. I continuously deliver my music to be a healing force, bringing about the unity that jazz always provides."

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As we put it in the description of Michael’s 2013 C.O.L.A. fellowship project, Orbit: “The roots of jazz have always reflected ancient wisdom and universal spirituality. The concept of Orbit entails the universe, space, and the inhabiting of celestial bodies. Orbit is a portal of energy that permeates the cosmos and our human inner universe. The orbit of Venus traces the shape of hearts, emanating divine love. The music of Orbit reflects universal oneness.”

On Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016, Michael peacefully passed away in Los Angeles after a long struggle with COPD-emphysema. He was 86. He is survived by his beloved wife, Leisei Chen (me). Supported by Dong He and Yao Hua Chen, Desheng Chen, Fusheng Chen, Minyee and Shu Hua Wu, his families in Japan. Patricia Windle Hilliard, Linda Windle McCarthy, Benjamin J. Windle, Lisa Ashley, Donna Ashley and Eddie Stallworth, his cousins in Houston. His dear friends and band members supported him in his transition: Timothy Young, Junko Yoshimura, Azeem Khan, Eryn Young, Danny Frankel and Jon Ossman. His vision is carried on by his beloved band members and jazz master musicians — Leisei Chen (vocals), Michael Howell (guitar), Heshima Mark Williams (bass) and Kenneth Nash (percussion) — who together form the Michael White Quintet.

Michael White and Leisei Chen, musical and life partners
Michael White and Leisei Chen, musical and life partners
Kevin Allen

Memorial donations may be made online at "In Loving Memory of Michael White Jazz Violin." Those who knew Michael or admired his work can also leave messages at the Michael White tribute site.


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