By day, Vivian Lee is a surgical technician, traveling from one hospital to the next to assist in the operating rooms. But on the weekends, she transforms into a smooth jazz singer, performing with musician friends around Sacramento.
On Saturday, Feb. 22, the Vivian Lee Jazz Ensemble will appear at the Rusted Mic on School Street for their first show in Lodi.
Lee’s group got started in 1998, shortly after she retired from a 20 year career in the Air Force. Just a few years earlier, she didn’t even realize she could sing.
Lee was born in Mississippi, but moved throughout the country while growing up as her father was in the Air Force. She graduated from Highland High School in Sacramento before beginning her own military career.
At the military hospital at Beale Air Force Base in Sacramento, Lee was helping to plan a Christmas party in the mid ’90s. She was signing up performers for a variety show when she was handed a Billie Holiday tape with just the background vocals. A coworker suggested she sing “God Bless the Child,” so she took a chance.
“I had no idea I could sing like that,” she said. “But this idea filtered in, that I could do a one woman show.”
Once Lee found her way into the music scene, she met a few musicians and put them together for a jazz ensemble. Today that group includes Aaron Garner on piano, Kerry Kashiwagi playing bass, and Jeff Minnieweather on the drums.
Lee is an improvisational performer who pulls most of her songs from the American Songbook, as well as classic jazz standards. She lives for pulling meaning out of song lyrics and has been know to create her own for instrumental tunes. Her favorites are ballads or swing music.
“I love lyrics, digging into lyrics and presenting the meaning out there to the audience and watching their faces as the memories hit them,” said Lee.
She watches older couples in the audience as she sings. When the right song plays they’ll be remembering a dance, or when they met.
“There’s an absent motion. He strokes her hair, she touches his hand. I can tell there’s a memory,” she said.