Kym finds his groove in jazz

Kym Purling

Kym Purling believes becoming a jazz pianist was his fate, despite the most unlikely of beginnings.

The international musician, conductor and composer was born in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Found abandoned in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, as a baby no more than three days old, Kym was placed in one orphanage then another, the second started by World Vision was where Australian nurse, Joan Potter was matron.

With Joan’s help, Kym was adopted by South Australian couple David and Judith Purling, at almost nine months of age, in what is believed to be one of the first international adoptions of a child of any nationality in Australia.

The Purlings already had two daughters of their own, but wanted to adopt a child because they had a steadfast belief in helping those less fortunate.

“They are very compassionate people. They knew there were children in the world who needed homes, and so it wasn’t a particularly difficult decision for them,” said Kym.

“They were also very aware of what was happening in Vietnam living in Australia – the war had been going on for 17 years by that time – so it was a very present and near situation for them,” he said.In 1973, Kym, three other orphan babies and a thirteen year old girl, were secretly airlifted (to avoid being mobbed by the media) from Vietnam to Melbourne, Australia, where four anxious mothers awaited their arrival.

“I have a photo of the four mum’s in their plaid skirts back in the seventies, anxiously waiting for their babies at the airport. And another one of them sitting in the same position holding a Vietnamese baby just minutes later,” said Kym. (See photo below – Judith and Kym are second left.)

Kym’s adoptive family had an appreciation of music and creativity. His dad played a little guitar, and his mum, Judith, played piano before she was married. When Kym learned the piano, Judith would sing along while Kym played from hundreds of songbooks, from classical to ‘jazz standards’ and show tunes. “I probably owe her a huge thanks for exposing me to all these great old songs at an early age because if she hadn’t, I wouldn’t have the old soul I have for the music I play now,” said Kym.

Kym Purling's mother at the airport

Kym started learning classical piano at age six and quickly became proficient. He later taught himself other styles, and in high school learned other instruments, including trumpet and percussion. But it was in discovering jazz in his late teens that he found his calling.

“The freedom of jazz, improvising in real time, the swinging sensation of the music, being able to interact with other musicians – it’s like a conversation in real time. You’re creating music on the fly and that’s what I love,” he said.

“When I discovered jazz, it was these huge set of wings that allowed me to fly and enjoy everything I was doing. And I never turned back.”

Purling completed a Bachelor of Music majoring in Jazz Studies at the University of Adelaide’s Elder Conservatorium. After forming the Kym Purling Jazz Trio at university, the popular group enjoyed quick success. The trio performed at music festivals all over Australia and the local music scene in Adelaide, averaging more than 250 performances a year.

“As a performer just to walk out on stage and give yourself to an audience is a wonderful experience,” said Kym.

“Whenever we do something that we enjoy that is for the soul or your spirit, it has to keep you young. It’s not going to wear you down is it?”

The trio also served as the rhythm section for many leading Australian vocalists and instrumentalists, recorded several albums and even performed for the Dalai Lama.

At just age 24, Kym won the Most Outstanding Pianist of the Year at the South Australian Music Awards. And it wasn’t long before doors opened overseas to perform with and learn from international artists.

Over a career spanning two decades and counting, Kym has shared the stage with many entertainment legends. The long list includes, David Cassidy, Natalie Cole, Julio Iglesias, Harry Connick Jr, James Morrison, Sandra Bernhardt, Frank Sinatra Jr and They Might be Giants, just to name a few.

He was musical director, conductor and pianist for Engelbert Humperdinck for a couple of years, performing in some of the world's most prestigious concert halls and outdoor arenas, including Royal Albert Hall, London.

Kym Purling

Kym was the musical-director and conductor for the US National Tour of the Broadway musical, Footloose, the US and Canada Tour of Miss Saigon, and the Japanese and US Tours of 42nd Street. He has performed in almost every showroom along the famed Las Vegas strip, and travelled to some 144 countries – which Kym says is “one of the best privileges of the job.”

Back in Australia, Kym has regularly toured nationally, even headlining a concert with David Helfgott, the acclaimed classical pianist who inspired the Academy Award winning film Shine.

Despite all the big stages, famous names and bright lights, Kym has never forgotten his roots. Giving back to the country he came from and the country where he was raised through regular charity concerts has been important.

“My parents have always instilled in me a need to do things for others, rather than just being stuck in your own world.

 “That’s why I do what I do with charities and kids. I want to inspire them the same way I was, and give the ones less fortunate opportunities.”

He has raised funds for the Australian Cranial Facial Foundation, the Variety Club of South Australia, the Global Action Coalition (Florida-Nepal), Hands For Hope (Vietnam) and the Sunrise Children’s Association based in Adelaide, which reunites Nepalese orphans and trafficked children with their families.

Kym also does workshops in high schools and universities because he believes he has a role in ensuring all children have access to different experiences, like music, to work out what they are drawn to.

“There is so much choice for young people, but you have to be aware of what the choices are to learn what suits you best,” said Kym.

Tagged in alumni