Local musician Jesse Chong is humbled greatness

While standing inside Waterman’s at the Virginia Beach Ocean Front, there is a subtle vibration that creeps 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’s the atmosphere that causes listeners to sway their arms left and right to the rhythm he provides while playing an array of reggae and soft rock.

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

But, when he plays at The Jewish Mother or other bigger venues, he and his band is the main attraction. Rather than playing covers to Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, The Beatles and much more in order to keep bar goers in good spirits, he keeps the audience going with music he writes himself. Some of his favorites include “Sweet Summer Parade” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nI53NqaBmFk&feature=related) and “Backroom” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2r3UWTHcX1Y).

His audience lets loose on the dance floor, singing along and looking as though they have been hypnotized into complete happiness.

While performing at smaller venues like Waterman’s on a Friday night, Jesse is a one-man-show who fluctuates between playing an acoustic guitar, keyboard, and a single drum.

“When he plays by himself he really shines. You can see what he can do,” fan and employee of The Jewish Mother Esther Cook said. At Jesse’s shows Cook can be seen swaying back and forth, barefoot.

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. Fulford said of Jesse; “He’s a really really talented player.”

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

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

Humble is an understatement. Jesse performs basically 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 that reach mid back (that he hasn’t cut in over five years), usually dressed in shorts, flip flops and a plain tank or tee, isn’t aiming to be a rock legend or snatch a label. He isn’t in it just for the possibility of fame or in order to get women. It’s more than that.

“At one point that’s what I thought it was all about,” Jesse said of his teen years after setting up to play at Murphy’s 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 said setting up and taking down his own equipment on the nights he plays alone gets heavy, Jesse said 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,” he said.

“It’s not about stardom or being on TV, and real musicians know that…not that I’m a real musician,” he said, 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 song writer. They were like our Beatles. Once The Beatles came out all the kids wanted to get a guitar and start a band,” Jesse said. 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 that Jesse has opened up for include Maroon 5, Steel Pulse, Snoop Dogg and INXS.

“That’s one of the benefits I have around here, is I’m one of the first call people to open up for someone,” Jesse said. He got to meet three of Bob Marley’s kids which Jesse said was cool because Bob Marley was such a big influence on him. However, he said 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, Va. 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 Ocean Front where they proudly play Jesse’s music. However, Jesse said 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 himself now, Jesse said “I would be glad that I’ve gotten better.” Jesse 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 him. Jesse said he doesn’t mind living and performing here and said 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,” Jesse said. “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,” Jesse said. “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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