Mina Cho is a classically trained jazz pianist and composer who has served as Director of Contemporary Music at Somerville Community Baptist Church since 2007. Mina is a faculty member at Emerson College, the Director of Gugak Jazz Society and founder of International Gugak Jazz Institute (IGJI). She holds a Masters in Music and a doctoral degree in Jazz Studies and Musicology (minor) from the New England Conservatory of Music (NEC), a Bachelors of Music from Berklee College of Music and a B.A. in Theology from Yonsei University. She is a doctoral candidate in Musicology at Brandeis University. Learn more about Mina’s work at www.IGJI.org and www.minachojazz.com.
Mina Cho was interviewed by Charan Devereaux.
At what age did your creative journey begin?
As a pianist, I started playing the piano when I was five years old. As a composer, as I remember, I composed a little piece as part of my music class when I was in middle school. I composed my own piece when I was in high school while I was in the process of learning a notation program—my heart told me to notate the melody I was hearing.
What got you involved in doing what you do? Is there someone or something that was important in getting you on your way?
I was very lucky to have really good teachers at each stage of my musical journey. Before I went to university, I trained classically as a pianist, and was lucky to study with classical teachers. Then my musical life—and my life—shifted, and my whole perspective changed, when I was 19 or 20 years old and began my freshman year at university. When I was in high school, there were financial difficulties in Korea, and my family was in a difficult situation, so I decided not to study music and chose to study theology. [I attended] Yonsei University, a Christian school founded by an American missionary. Everyone there is required to participate in chapel. At the very first chapel I attended, I opened the door and there was a very old grand piano. Instantly, inside I almost cried, because in my final year of high school, my parents had to sell the piano, and I had continued to practice at our church at night. So seeing the piano was very touching. At the time, I had kind of given up on dreaming of being a pianist. But looking at the piano, I felt God was telling me to follow my heart.
During the service, there was a group singing Psalm 23. It was a mind-shifting moment, and I thought, if I ever do music again, I want to create the kind of music that touched my heart in that way. Everyone I met at the university in the theology department challenged me. Musically, I was very technically advanced, but spiritually immature, and these teachers and colleagues were inspiring.
I started looking for a jazz piano teacher. There was no big ambition at first—I just wanted to be able to accompany beautiful singing with beautiful chords. Though I had dreamed of becoming a classical artist, I also liked many of the popular artists in the 90’s like Mariah Carey, and secretly played their music. Then, being challenged by my friends at university, I started to go ahead and do what I wanted to do. As a freshman, I met a really good teacher who also loved that type of music, and had an extensive knowledge of jazz and classical music as well. So he encouraged me.
I was on a creative journey writing a lot of songs, mostly spiritual songs. In my senior year at the college, the musical group I was in made an album, including all my original compositions. So my journey as a jazz pianist began when I gave up the journey as a classical pianist.
My teacher encouraged me to apply to Berklee. So long story short, I applied and came. Here, I was exposed to so many opportunities. As you know, in Boston and New York, there are many famous teachers, so many musicians. At Berklee, I learned different musical languages, African rhythms, South American and Afro-Cuban rhythms, there was so much diversity. I majored in film scoring. When I started my master’s degree at New England Conservatory, I began to look into myself and express my identity. It was a time to integrate all of these musical languages into my own. As opposed to technicality, my thoughts were more important. Fred Hirsch and Ben Schwendener were important teachers, as well as Ken Schaphorst, the chair of the NEC Jazz Department, and Katarina Markovic and Brian Levy inspired me to deepen my musicological studies.
I want to add that my husband has always been a great supporter. Without him, as a married woman with a baby, it would not be possible to pursue a musical career.
What brought you to Somerville / the Somerville area?
I came to Boston in January 2006, and one of the first churches I went to was Park Street Church downtown. Because of the location, many Berklee students were playing there. I really liked the music and the contemporary services at 4 pm and 6 pm, and I hoped to be able to play there one day. An opportunity came, and I auditioned to be the pianist, and was selected. So I was very lucky to be the keyboardist for contemporary worship there for several years. At Park Street, there was a violin player who was also a pianist at Somerville Community Baptist Church (SCBC). Back then, there were no other professional musicians at SCBC. One of the strong musical tastes of the church was black gospel music, and she invited me to help her with playing those repertoires. In 2007, she had to leave the position, so I was asked to be pianist, and it became my home church ever since. My husband came to Boston during my senior year at Berklee. He has a really good bass voice, so he started as a singer at SCBC, then he participated as a seminary student, as a student pastor, then Associate Pastor, and now, the Senior Pastor.
How would you describe what you do at the church as Contemporary Music Director at Somerville Community Baptist Church?
I basically organize all of the music that happens during the service, along with other musical events sponsored by the church. I typically compose and arrange instrumental pieces—postlude and offertory—as well as choral pieces. We also have a choir director and musicians who play unique instruments, including George Lernis on percussion and Vasilis Kostas on laouto.
As a church musician for a long time (since I was 10), I know that some musicians think in terms of technique, the music is not very challenging. So one of my goals is to create an exciting tension in church music. I really take time to create challenging and exciting arrangements and to play music from other cultures including Korea, West Africa and Latin America.
Who or what inspires your work?
In the United States, as a diverse country consisting of people from many different places, many artists and musicians think more about their culture here—this is not unique to me. For example, George Lernis, my old friend who plays the drums in many projects with me, got more curious about his own culture. Other friends created beautiful music out of their cultural explorations. In my journey, finding out more about myself through studying at NEC, thinking about philosophy more, I started to become curious about my own culture, Korean culture. I had spent a lot of time studying Latin, Greek and Turkish music, and music from other cultures I didn’t belong to. It was exciting and meaningful, but at the the end of the musical exploration, I still felt like an outsider.
So I made a challenging decision, because studying the Korean tradition requires dedication, and since I started playing the piano at age five, I know how hard the journey is. I didn’t want it to be just a hobby, or just to make my music sound interesting, I wanted to be serious, to do it right. As a doctoral student, I researched many informative articles, but music cannot be learned only by reading. So I started picking up some instruments from the Korean tradition and studying with traditional musicians who majored in them at university. I first picked up Gayageum, Korean zither. Currently, I’m studying Korean traditional percussion called Janggo with a teacher who majored in Janggo performance in Korea—and is now on exciting journey as a jazz composer at Berklee.
One of the important projects that manifests my long journey studying Korean traditional music is the Panosri Cantata I composed as part of my doctoral dissertation at NEC. Even though it was one of my last projects at the NEC, I see it as the beginning of that musical adventure. [In addition to premiering at NEC, parts of Cho’s Pansori Cantata were performed at Tufts University’s Granoff Music Hall produced by the Somerville Museum.]
How has this recent time affected your work?
I had a big project planned for May  in collaboration with the Somerville Museum called GreeKorea, combining Greek and Korean musical traditions. We made a lot of progress, and planned to reserve hotels, but we had to postpone [because of Covid-19]. That actually gave me the opportunity to explore more. It was a kind of hectic plan because I received a grant from the Korean Arts Council and had to come up with a new idea right after composing and performing the Pansori Cantata. In hindsight, I see I needed more time to explore and combine these two cultures. So now I have more time to think about how to do that.
This time also has given me an opportunity to think about myself more and my journey in the past, and how everything came along. That is the theological part. I’ve always wondered why God led me on this journey. Was it a waste of time for four years to study theology? Why is it that God gave me this musical desire and the opportunity to come to Boston and start a long musical journey as a jazz pianist and musicologist? With hindsight, I could understand that everything was meaningful, and there were seasons of my life.
For my dissertation at Brandeis as a PhD candidate, I decided to examine new spiritual aesthetics in Pansori. Pansori Master Dongjin Park has a religious Pansori work called The Life Story of Jesus (Yesujeon), and I thought about it in relation to J.S. Bach. My doctoral advisor Dr. Eric Chafe is a professor at Brandeis and an important Bach, Wagner, and Moteverdi scholar. I was awarded a Collaborative Research Grant from the Lewis D. Brandeis Legacy Fund for Social Justice to collaborate with Dr. Chafe, and we are establishing the relationship between Bach’s work and Park’s work, exploring their approaches to ritual and how the music treats cultural elements and theology, and how the culture manifests.
I’m so glad to study at Brandeis, focused on musicology exclusively. I’m so glad I found, with the help of my teacher, a creative way to consolidate my very different musical interests. I only recently became a US citizen, and I think the best thing I can do is to convey, manifest and express Korean culture in the context of jazz and classical music better, and respectfully share it with the people of my community in this country.