What is UP With Monclair Brothers Matt and Julian Lee?

By mark-slade April 4, 2011

What is UP With Matt and Julian Lee?

Brothers that play together… find bliss.
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What Is UP With These Kids? Each Monday we’ll be running a profile. About kids. And what they’ve done. Or do. Or are about to do. Because when a kid puts his mind to it, he can do some pretty interesting things.
Julian Lee, 15 and Matt Lee, 9: Jazz Musicians (and brothers)
“Sometimes we’ll just jam together and it’s like having a conversation.  Whenever you play like that with someone, it makes you closer.”
This is just one of the ways Julian explains how he and his brother are close. When most siblings would be fighting over the Xbox controllers, the Lee brothers are practicing music. They each started playing music when they were six or seven and can play at least three instruments apiece.
Julian is, first and foremost, a saxophone player. He won the DownBeat Annual Student Music Award for Jazz Soloist two years in a row. He was also recently the recipient of several more awards from the 3rd annual Charles Mingus High School Competition, including Best Combo for the quintet he plays in through the Manhattan School of Music, as well as three awards for his work with the Jazz House Kids Big Band: Best Specialized Big Band, Outstanding Saxophone Section and Outstanding Soloist.
He speaks with great respect and admiration for the young musicians he plays with in these bands, as well as the adult musicians he’ll sometimes jam with at Cecil’s Jazz Club (in West Orange), but when asked what he imagines his future career to be like, there’s someone else in the picture.  “I’d like to have a band, but not too soon.  I want this guy to be in it,” he says, pointing to his brother, “and he’s not old enough, yet.  Jazz is a late night endeavor.  So I have to wait until he’s out of high school.”
Matt seems completely comfortable with that idea. He’s played with his big brother on some of his Jazz House Kids gigs, and sat in as drummer for an entire semester in an adult band class that his dad was teaching. He takes lessons during the year and attends JHK music camp during the summer.  And although he considers drums his primary instrument and plays mostly jazz, his older brother describes him as “an insane trumpet player,” and on drums, able to “completely rock out.”
The boys’ parents, Mike Lee and Rebecca Harris-Lee are both professional musicians, and understand the dedication required to excel at your instrument.  Rebecca plays classical violin (as does the couple’s five-year-old daughter, Jacquie), and Mike plays saxophone in his band New Tricks.  He is also the Director of Music Programming at Jazz House Kids.
“When I was going into fourth grade, we realized I didn’t have a lot of time to spend with my family,” says Julian. Between school, homework, sports and practicing, it all felt like too much. So Julian was homeschooled for fourth grade, enabling him to get both his schoolwork and practicing finished by the end of a typical kid’s school day. “We refer to it as my Harris/Lee Academy year,” he says. “I’m not sure whether we’ll do that for Matt, too.  He’s got a lot going on.  I can see it with him—the stress.”
In addition to studying music, Matt plays soccer on two travel teams, which puts him on the field six days a week. Julian oversees his brother’s musical practices and helps him with his transcriptions. “Sometimes it’s hard to practice when I don’t feel like it,” says Matt. “And some solos are really hard to learn.” But overall, he seems at ease with the structure of his days.
“When I was his age, I would scream and fight about practicing,” says Julian. “You have to practice to get better, but I didn’t know anyone else who was doing it back then. I used to feel like, ‘why me?’ I think it might be easier for Matt, because he sees me doing it every day.”
As the “older brother,” Julian has already seen what kind of payoff comes with hard work. “Once you get to a certain level, you can be playing with people and so much energy builds up that you’re not even conscious of what’s going on. It feels perfect and it’s almost like you’re watching yourself play. It feels great. It’s what you’re trying to go for. It happens to me when I’m playing with really talented players. It happens to me when I’m playing with Matt.”
But Matt has yet to experience that out-of-body sensation. “Right now, if I’m mad that I have to practice, I think maybe later in life when I’m on tour with my band, I’ll be glad I practiced when I was little,” he says.
Julian has no doubt Max is on his way to experiencing the same musical nirvana. “I’m sure he’s going to get to it. Probably sooner than I did,” he says.
We find most of our kids through word of mouth. So, if you know a kid who is doing something fascinating and extraordinary, or quirky and unusual, please let us know. We’re trying to find out: What’s UP with these kids. Shelley@Patch.com.