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A Conversation with Jessica Lee

Business consultant by day, jazz chanteuse at night, Jessica Lee has been hosting "Entrepreneurial Thursdays" at Dowe's on Ninth for the past three years.

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So how does a business consultant with a law degree end up singing torch songs in a Downtown Pittsburgh jazz club for high-tech types?

Sometimes I tell people I'm like Carnegie Mellon University -- geek on one side, artsy on the other. I started playing classical piano at the age of 5, and I did a lot of competitive playing from the time I was 8 -- a lot of recitals, playing for little trophies. When I went down to Duke in the late 1980s, I was playing the piano and singing in a practice room, and an old African-American gentleman walked in. He took the music off the piano and said, "Now play something." I said I was trained classically, and he said, "You don't know music yet." He was the head of the jazz studies department and I really began getting into jazz and gospel, and fell in love with the blues.

 

Where did the idea for Entrepreneurial Thursdays come from?

When I came back to Pittsburgh, I saw a lot of things going on in the region, a lot of people doing interesting things, but they didn't know about each other. One afternoon I walked into Dowe's -- it'd just opened -- and Al Dowe asked me for help. I thought he wanted help on the business side, but he wanted me to sing. I'd heard a rumor about a music club in California where they were doing more deals than they were in corporate boardrooms. I don't know if it's true, but it seemed like a good idea, so we tried it here. You get a blend of CEOs, investor types, students, musicians -- it's a very eclectic blend. I thought I'd run it like a musical -- let it go on until it runs down. I thought this thing would run for a year, but it's been three years now and it still seems to be growing.

 

Does it bother you to have these people doing deals and talking to each other while you're giving your all up on stage?

People ask me that, but it doesn't. Some people come to listen, some come to network. I'm just glad we're here to provide an environment that is comfortable for both the music and the business. Independent musicians like me are entrepreneurs; they have to be. I think entrepreneurship is where business and community meet. Many in the entrepreneurial community are good musicians. Some of the entrepreneurs have made up their own lyrics. One did a song about starting a dot-com to the tune of a Billy Joel song.

 

Between sets, I bring up someone from the audience and interview them for a few minutes about what they're doing. Some of them really have big followings. [BodyMedia CEO] Astro Teller was a big hit because while he was up on stage he bared his arm and showed the [health monitoring] device his company makes. We had to do an "Astro Teller has left the building" thing when he was finished.

 

Doesn't it seem weird to you that you're taking a musical tradition -- the blues -- that was originated by impoverished African Americans, and you're using it in this corporate context?

No, not at all. The thing I like about blues and R&B is that it's really positive -- it's about hope and overcoming obstacles. And if there's one common aspect to the entrepreneurs I meet, it's that can-do attitude. Most of the entrepreneurs are struggling. They want to get something done; they've been trying to do it for years. It's a constant battle. A lot of the music -- even if you're talking about hard times, you're talking about overcoming them. I always think of [the music] as being about money and the blues. Because entrepreneurs are always looking for money.

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