Jessica McJunkins was a 9-year-old attending Elizabeth Elementary when she saw a boy who had brown skin like hers playing the violin on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and she said to her mom: “I’m better than him.”
Her mom’s reply: “Let’s get some lessons.”
Fast-forward 28 years, and McJunkins, who now goes by the name “Lady Jess,” is a professional violinist with a spellbinding list of musical accomplishments: tours and collaborations with huge acts like Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Lauryn Hill and The Roots; soloist performances with major orchestras around the globe; a current role in the pit orchestra of “Sweeney Todd” on Broadway — and she’s becoming known as a force in pushing for equity in the world of freelance musicians.
Music is in her family. Sibling Kelsey Lu is a cellist and singer-songwriter who’s been featured in national publications. Her parents, Jerry and Ann Louise, are both musicians in addition to having other careers.
This week, Lady Jess, 37, brings her talent back to her hometown, where she’ll be playing in the pit for “Company” on stage at the Belk Theater Nov. 21-26.
In advance of her visit, she spoke by Zoom from her home in New York City with the Ledger’s Cristina Bolling about what it was like growing up in Charlotte’s youth music scene, the challenges of breaking into the world of professional music and her work in opening doors for musicians of diverse backgrounds to have thriving freelance music careers.
The conversation was edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: Let’s start at the beginning. I read somewhere that you learned about the violin by watching “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and that was an inspiration for you.
Yeah, that’s how we came to the violin. There was a Black kid playing violin on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and I told my mom I was better than him. And she goes, “Let’s get some lessons.” So we went to the old Music Maker store on Kings Drive, and that’s where I rented my first violin.
My first few lessons were with a teacher whose approach just didn’t work for me. So my mom, to her credit, listened to me and we were given a recommendation to have a lesson with Sarah Slechta [a longtime instructor with Community School of the Arts — now Arts+] — rest in peace, she is no longer with us. She was a powerhouse and is just a legend for her teaching. Sarah was such a dynamic person. She was terrifying to me. And so I loved her. [Laughs]
Q: As you got older and started playing in competitive orchestras like the Charlotte Symphony Youth Orchestra, did you know you wanted to be a professional musician?
I grew up in that world very heavily. And my parents liked it but were never like, “You should do this.” There wasn’t a big, strong push. It was hypnotic, the idea of an orchestra to me. It was super-important for me growing up, because it was also one of the few places that I was socializing with other people my age outside of school. So it was a core experience in a lot of ways.
I thought I wanted to be a writer until the summer before my senior year of high school. That’s when I did the Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro. And I don’t know if it’s still this way, but back then, they just treated you like you were a professional musician. It was a lot of work. You either hated it or loved it, and I just loved it. So it just kind of changed my whole career path.
Q: You wound up at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts for college. How did that set you up for a career that would take you in so many directions?
I took auditions [for colleges] in the Northeast, and I had no idea what I was really walking into — I wasn’t told, I wasn’t informed. So when I ended up at North Carolina School of the Arts, I was resistant at first, because I felt like these were backup options to go to school in the same state. But it ended up being perfect for me.
I think it’s still the only publicly funded conservatory in the nation. Anybody who works in academia, I’m sure, could break it down with charts and graphs, but the way it translates to me is that we missed the part of the development game that includes being super-branded, and having to maintain this idea of an institute. It was just a free place.
Many of the people that I went to school with shared a socio-economic experience with me. And the school itself, because it’s five different schools on one campus, it’s so small. It’s an intimate space. It was only as competitive as we let it be.
Q: What was your first stop after college? Did you go straight to New York?
The path at that point for anyone with a performance degree was to go straight into grad school. But I was self-funded, so I couldn’t even conceive of that. I ended up freelancing in Winston-Salem and Charlotte and playing with the symphony.
The irony is that my first gig was with the Charlotte Symphony, and I got it because Ernest Pereira [a violinist in the Charlotte Symphony who had directed McJunkins in the Charlotte Symphony Youth Orchestra] had recommended me to the personnel manager because he’d been following me. It was very full-circle.
Q: How did you break out of Charlotte?
When I was playing for [the Charlotte Symphony], I was considered a substitute musician. You’re getting paid at an hourly rate without benefits, but it also means you have the flexibility to do things like play for shows that come through and hire local musicians. That’s how I got into the Broadway scene.
“South Pacific” was my first show. There was one violinist who traveled with that show, and they would add three violins and a viola and a cello in each city. I wanted to play Broadway so badly that I learned the entire book [of music] like it was the world’s most important audition. The conductor noticed me, and that was how I made my first connection.
Q: When I look at your list of accomplishments, it is dizzying. Tours with A-list musicians, Broadway shows, incredible orchestras and world-renowned ensembles. What would you say are the highlights, if you were going to write an article about yourself?
Pick any memory of Beyoncé anything, and that’s pretty high up there. [She traveled with Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s On the Run II World Tour and played with Beyoncé at Coachella.] Another highlight is the “Lion King” score, because that was my first film score, recorded in Los Angeles. [The “Lion King” soundtrack was re-recorded in 2019 for the live-action movie.] We were on the soundstage where they recorded “Star Wars” and “Star Trek,” and the soundstage itself has all this good juju and energy. I’m playing next to a Black player who also recorded on the original “Lion King” score.
In June, I was in the orchestra for the Juneteenth concert on CNN. We performed with Earth, Wind and Fire, and they’re one of my favorite bands. So at that point, my body left the gig, and it was, like, floating above.
Q: You’ve done a lot of work around equity for musicians, and are trying to have what you do not only be for people who came up through those conservatories in the Northeast. Why is that so important to you?
I know so many musicians who have been looked over because they haven’t fit a certain paradigm, without even having been heard. I know too much about how all this goes down, and so what is the point of evolving and making connections and having power if you can’t advocate for somebody like me, who may have talent and ideas and honestly feel like there’s no space for them, because the person next to them doesn’t know what it’s like to have to work through school? I’ve had to be the first in too many situations, and I feel like it’s my job to make it easier for the person coming after me.