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Jazz Philadelphia's Hometown Heroes: Spotlight on Vocalist Lee Mo

Yonnie Simon
Lee Mo

Whether singing jazz in a nuanced, mellow tone, tackling soul with sultry zeal, or hosting gospel’s tender spirituality with holy heft—there are no walls for Philly vocalist Lee Mo. Only open doors and easy gradations.

“Jazz allows more freedom, more room to experiment with the music and the moment,” said Mo whose vocal and compositional originals steer the forked road between jazz and R&B. “Soul music has its freedoms—gospel too—but most of it is far more structured than jazz, with harder rules. I’m never thinking as much about genre as I am conveying a feeling. Jazz, you just….mmmm.”

That may be the best definition that jazz has ever had. It’s just ‘mmmm.’

Jazz allows more freedom, more room to experiment with the music and the moment. - Lee Mo

Maryland-born and refusing to be placed into any boxes, musical or performance-wise, Mo lists the membership of the Baltimore City College Choir and the Baltimore City College Marching Knights as highlights of her resume, while dining out on a musical diet of jazz singers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, and Billie Holiday. 

“I was in the thick of studying… at a young age, I was harmonizing, picking up on things by ear,” she said. “Jazz was introduced when I was learning theory and playing trumpet in the fifth grade.” There she learned to love “voice” beyond just singing, and was inspired to further her education at Temple University, where she received her Bachelor’s in Vocal Jazz Performance in 2014.

When she got to Temple’s music program, studying under Philadelphia vocal legend Joanna Pascale and the “meeting of method and the music” became the vehicle through which she took in jazz as a whole. “Learning and un-learning, both are important,” said Mo. “The classroom is as important as the experience of going out and performing and mingling in the scene. Going out to jam sessions is a good way to unlearn, and ultimately enhance what you have to say.

The camaraderie of friends and the embrace of fellow players on the Philadelphia scene when she arrived here in 2009 is what has most impressed Mo. She’s loved the music department, the open mics and the church services on Temple’s campus as much as she meeting trumpeter and Vertical Current bandleader Christopher Stevens (“he changed the sound of gospel with Tye Tribbett”) and Philip Collier. Making the acquaintance of mentors such as bassist Mike Boone and drummer Anwar Marshall. Playing sessions such as World Café Live’s “The Harvest,” and Warmdaddy’s soul nights.

Mo says of the scene, “There’s so many people that I am meeting at so many places all the time in Philly, playing all music, upping their skills and versatility.” 

Just like Lee Mo does every day.