Jesse Chong: Humbled Greatness

*As published in AltDaily.com, June 2010*

Standing inside Waterman’s at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront, there is a subtle vibration creeping up one’s feet to the knees.

It isn’t just the alcohol buzz from the Orange Crushes, but the result of Jesse Chong’s musical talent. He creates an atmosphere that causes listeners to sway their arms left and right to the rhythm of his reggae and soft rock. Jesse is a one-man-show who fluctuates between playing acoustic guitar, keyboard, and a single drum.

“When he plays by himself he really shines,” says fan and Jewish Mother employee Esther Cook. “You can see what he can do.”

At Jesse’s shows, Cook can be seen swaying back and forth, barefoot.

“I’m just trying to entertain,” says Jesse. “Just make sure everybody has a good time.”

When he plays at bigger venues like The Jewish Mother, he and his band are the main attraction. He keeps the audience going, including a list of original songs, some favorites including “Sweet Summer Parade”  and “Backroom.” His audience lets loose on the dance floor, singing along and looking as though they have been hypnotized into complete happiness.

His band consists of Jason Bruner (drums), David Fulford (Hammond organ), Will Highton (bass) and Bernie Lee (piano/organ). Jesse plays lead guitar and sings. His band seems to have a great respect for Jesse’s talent and personality.

“Jesse is a really good singer, songwriter and musician,” says Lee. “To be able to do all three is unusual.”

Adds Cook, “He’s better than he gives himself credit for. He’s humble–it’s very refreshing for a musician.”

Humble is an understatement. Jesse performs seven days a week at local venues with or without his band and does it for the love of music. The 29-year-old Korean American with dreadlocks reaching mid-back (he hasn’t cut his hair in over five years) is usually dressed in shorts, flip flops and a plain tank or tee, and isn’t aiming to be a rock legend or snatch a label. He isn’t in it for the possibility of fame or to get women. It’s more than that.

“At one point that’s what I thought it was all about,” Jesse says of his teen years, after setting up to play at Murphy’s Irish Pub at the Oceanfront on a late Monday afternoon. “I realized I’m in love with the music and that’s why I do it. It’s not because I want to be famous. You love the music itself, that’s why I drag hundreds of pounds of stuff around every night.”

Though he says setting up and taking down his own equipment on the nights he plays alone gets heavy, he says it also keeps him in check. “I don’t ever want to be a megalomaniac musician guy who wants everybody to do everything for me. I really see this as a real profession, like a chef or a mechanic, serving a function to the community.”

As for labels, Jesse thinks he’d be better off with an independent label, if any. He has talked to some, but they would turn him off by suggesting changes in his appearance, his “image.”

“I’m not sure if I’m a John Mayer type. He’s a good musician, but he also knows how to work the media. He’s about being a rock star, that’s his thing. That’s not my thing.

“It’s not about stardom or being on TV, and real musicians know that…not that I’m a real musician,” he says, laughing.

Growing up, he played trumpet in the school band from fifth through eighth grade. He picked up a guitar at age 13, inspired by Nirvana.

“[Kurt Cobain] was a great songwriter. They were like our Beatles. Once The Beatles came out all the kids wanted to get a guitar and start a band.” He first played at LunaSea in Virginia Beach at age 20.

His favorite musicians span from Jimi Hendrix, Van Morrison and Johnny Cash to Paul Simon, Bob Dylan and The Dave Mathews Band. Jesse doesn’t have a favorite genre of music and feels the underground scene is great. Bands Jesse has opened up for include Maroon 5, Steel Pulse, Snoop Dogg and INXS.

“That’s one of the benefits I have around here–I’m one of the first calls people make to open up for someone,” Jesse says. He got to meet three of Bob Marley’s kids, which Jesse says was cool because Bob Marley was such a big influence on him. However, he says he doesn’t get star struck because he sees it from the artist’s perspective.

“I know what a pain in the ass it is when people are star struck around you. Maybe it’s just me. People are people. The whole image of a rock star is complete mythology; it’s not based on anything real. Everyone’s a person with their own faults. Just because you’re an artist, people surround you with this aura.”

Jesse doesn’t want to be put on a pedestal. “I just want to be treated like a Virginia Beach native guy. A guy who works a surf shop or a bartender, it’s no different.”

Jesse was born in Williamsburg, where his parents met. He was raised in Virginia Beach with a traditional Korean upbringing. His parents currently own a Shell gas station at the Oceanfront, where they proudly play Jesse’s music. However, Jesse says his parents discouraged his love for music at first and wanted him to go to college and become a doctor instead.

When asked what his 20-year-old self would think of Jesse now, he says, “I would be glad that I’ve gotten better.” He still thinks he has a lot more room to grow and would like to spend more time writing songs and putting out an album he’s proud of so he can tour. His local upcoming performances are listed on his MySpace.

Being a musician from Virginia Beach means a lot to Jesse. He says he doesn’t mind living and performing here and likes that his fans treat him well.

“People think it’s not legitimate if I’m not on the radio or TV, like I’m not a real musician, like I’m a piece of trash. People don’t understand what it is to be a musician. It’s about sacrifice to the art, spending hours and hours working on it, getting better and feeling better about your performances.

“There [are] people that aren’t very good that are very successful, and it’s not because of their music, [it’s] because of what’s built around them. I don’t want to be one of those people. I want to be a person that’s legitimately good at their instrument and has devoted hours and hours of time, paid their dues.”

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