Miss Sophie Lee built her life in New Orleans almost exclusively on Frenchmen Street.
It is where, 15 years ago, she first sang traditional jazz. It is where she met her future husband, guitarist John Rodli, got her first job in New Orleans and, with two partners, opened the restaurant/music club Three Muses.
It is where, for the past eight years, she’s held down her own regular Thursday-night gig at The Spotted Cat.
And it is where, on Thursday (July 21), she’ll celebrate her latest CD, “Traverse This Universe,” much of which was co-written and performed by musicians who perform regularly on, yes, Frenchmen Street. The free show starts around 6 p.m.
“Traverse This Universe” very much sounds like a product of the Frenchmen Street traditional jazz revival, from Aurora Nealand’s Big Easy clarinet on “You and Me (the Universe)” to Dave Boswell’s like-minded muted trumpet on “Undecided.” Lee’s voice has an ease about it on both her original compositions and such well-worn standards as “Ain’t Misbehaving” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.”
By finding her way to Frenchmen Street, she both fulfilled and created her destiny.
She grew up near Chicago in Joliet, Illinois, the daughter of a black father and a Korean mother. She attended DePaul University’s classical piano conservatory, then detoured into modern rock, inspired by such mid-‘90s Chicago success stories as the Smashing Pumpkins and Liz Phair.
In 1997, her mother fell ill and moved to Tupelo, Mississippi, to be near Lee’s brother. Lee followed to help out for the summer but ended up staying in Tupelo three years. She made occasional forays to New Orleans.
When her mother recovered, Lee considered moving back to Chicago. But as she recalled this week, “Somebody had put it into my head, ‘You love food, you love music. Why don’t you try New Orleans first?’ I thought, 'If I don’t do it now and go back home to Chicago, I’ll probably never leave.'”
So, she, her mother and a roommate moved to New Orleans in 2001. Lee immediately fell in with the young Frenchmen Street musicians who had embraced traditional jazz.
“Part of deciding to move here was I needed goals. Food and music were the two goals. Learning the foundation of jazz was one of them," she said. "I thought it would inform my own songwriting, which it has. The Frenchmen trad scene was my grad school.”
In 2002, she started sitting in with her mentors, the New Orleans Jazz Vipers, at The Spotted Cat. By 2008, she had earned her own Thursday-night slot.
On her first three New Orleans albums, writing original material wasn’t a priority. But last summer, melodies and song structures started coming to her in dreams. Three songwriters, including Frenchmen Street veteran Luke Winslow-King, helped flesh out her compositions.
Lee wrote them on ukulele but wasn’t confident enough to play on the recording. Lately, she’s broken out the ukulele during the first of her band’s four nightly sets at The Spotted Cat. “When I get more confident and skilled, I will use it more live. I want to be proficient at it. I don’t want to just stand there with it.”
Before her parents divorced, they ran a hot dog stand in Joliet. Lee has often worked in restaurants. And so she jumped at the chance to open Three Muses in 2010 and feature both food and music — but not necessarily her own.
“I knew that I didn’t want it to be a showcase for me, like, ‘Here I am, the owner; I’m going to play four nights a week.’ That was never the intention.”
Even after opening her own place, she never considered giving up her Spotted Cat gig: “It’s been my anchor. I love it.”
For several months, she operated the Korean food pop-up restaurant Seoul Shop behind the Dragon’s Den at the foot of Frenchmen Street. Later this summer, a permanent Seoul Shop is set to open on St. Claude Avenue.
But first, Lee plans to launch a satellite Three Muses at 7537 Maple St. At the Uptown location, music will be more understated, secondary to the food. “It’s two totally different neighborhoods,” she said, of Frenchmen and Maple streets. “We want to respect that.”
Lee was estranged from her father for many years, but two weeks before she moved to New Orleans, he reached out to her. She discovered that his mother — her grandmother — was born in Tallulah. She’d had Louisiana roots all along.
“I was drawn here, unbeknownst to me, by forces beyond my control. I’m not from here, but my daughters are. It’s a huge full circle. I recognize that and appreciate it, every day.”