Turning 21 this year, No Black Tie is ever germane to our rapidly gentrifying world, especially under Evelyn Hii’s watch.

You’ll know the classroom exercise — it’s almost a given in primary or secondary school (and in some of the more ambitious preschools, so I'm told)...

Describe who you want to be when you grow up.

For most of us, our careers come nowhere close to those early childish scribblings. Not only did Evelyn Hii hit the bullseye, however; her arrow of determination ricocheted, grazing multiple targets. Concert pianist, prophesied Hii in a composition titled 'My Ambition.’

“It was for English class and I was 10,” says the markswoman. But even she could not have anticipated initiating Kuala Lumpur’s longest running music institution. “Listening to my late father play records at home, starting piano lessons at seven, winning a state-wide piano competition organized by Yamaha Music School in my teens, touring with one of Sarawak’s leading choral groups in the role of accompanist, and pursuing classical piano performance studies in the USA...” she halts for a breath. “These experiences are what led to my creating an alternative platform, a ‘salon,’ if you will, for classical music outside of the conventional concert hall experience.”

Thus was born No Black Tie in 1998.

Passion For Perfection

On the evening of our photo shoot and interview, Hii is unable to sit still. Likewise, one of her hairs has decided to go rogue. Sticking out from her jet black power bob, it resists all efforts by her private stylist to be tamed. Misinterpreting Hii’s energy for nerves, I make the mistake of telling her “to chill.”

“I am chill,” she says breathily. “I’m always like this.”

An architect friend of Hii’s who is present for moral and stylistic support looks at me. “She is,” he shrugs.

“Nana, can you adjust my collar to expose my necklace?” says Hii, beckoning to her stylist. “I mean to show a melange of the indigenous with the modern.” Depicted on her décolletage is a yellow beaded necklace from Miri, her birthtown.

Notoriously hard to get ahold of, Hii had agreed to be interviewed for one reason only: to shine the spotlight on No Black Tie and Borneo Jazz Festival, of which she is the head curator and co-organiser. Slated for July 19th through the 21st, the 14th edition of the music festival will involve interns, volunteers, ground staff, technicians, lighting designers, locals, tourists, and artists of all walks of life, whom Hii deems her kith and kin.

Of One Pulse

Lest I am chastised for airing my ‘first world problems, I rarely dare ask, but the thought of getting input from one of my heroines is too compelling: “What happens when work is your hobby? How do you separate the two?”

Hii looks at my quizzically. “I’m a musician, so I’m always thinking about music,” she says, not quite getting what I’m at. “Whether I’m playing the piano at home, curating the music calendar at No Black Tie, or creating recording projects for NBT Records or Borneo Jazz Festival. And when I’m on holiday, I go to concerts!”

Though not the answer I anticipated, relief and release soften my shoulders. So it is okay to be married to your job, I think. As if reading my mind, Hii adds softly,

When you love what you do and are passionate about it, time dissolves.

Evergreen Appeal

Every music genre has its heyday. Revivals and regressions are also part of the process. Jazz, Hii believes, embraces all genres of music and constantly evolves with the times, hence its ability to stay relevant. “Jazz has always been cool and always will be,” she asserts. “Because everyone admires a ‘dare to be different’ attitude. Jazz is spontaneous, dynamic, sophisticated, quirky, individualistic and has a firm place within urban culture as it reflects the movement and pace of the city. I cannot imagine anyone, even newer generations, who wouldn’t want to discover and experience jazz.”

Ever gave a jazz concert a go and walked away thinking, It’s not for me? Try again. “There’s jazz rock, pop jazz, jazz world, experimental jazz, modern jazz, swing jazz, big band jazz...” Hii reels off genres and subgenres at a mile a minute. “Quincy Jones even said that Bebop is the new Hip-Hop.”

And if not jazz specifically, then listen to music at large, especially performed live. “Music is the best celebration of life,” declares Hii. “It reminds us of humanity, the importance of freedom of mind, social reform, justice for all, and harmony among mankind. If these remain No Black Tie’s values, then the venue will stand the test of time.”

© 2022 Tatler Asia Limited. All rights reserved.