Virgin Quintet's Nathan Chinen tunes his many skills on and off campus


Nathan Chinen (C'97) graduated from Penn with a degree in creative writing in December, but his experiences were more than academic.

"College is not just about doing the papers or taking the exams; it is also about the experiences," Chinen said. And in four years he has cultivated his music while fine-tuning his writing skills.

He admits that finding a musical niche was difficult, however. "It took two years for me to find musicians who can play."

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Chinen performs with the Virgin Quintet (a.k.a. Virgin House Band) at the Kelly Writers House alternate Thursdays.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

During that time he channeled his creative energy into the a cappella group Counterparts, serving as its president in his sophomore year. "I am a firm believer that all experiences will ultimately produce fruit." And his time in Counterparts allowed him to arrange and compose songs.

He is putting those skills to use as his band, the Virgin Quintet, prepares to record its first CD in conjunction with the newly formed Handwritten Records. Chinen, who plays the drums, believes that the album will be ready to debut after an April 16th concert at the Kelly Writers House.

"We are initially only pressing 100 discs, so they will be collector's items," said Chinen.

Chinen, a fixture at the Writers House, entertains audiences not only as a member of the Virgin Quintet -- or the Virgin House Band, as they have been known to Writers House patrons up to now -- but also as a poet.

"I am fairly new to the public poetry world," he said. But he is quickly becoming an old hat at it. He has read his poems on "Live at the Writers House," which airs on WXPN, and will be reading at Barnes and Noble on 19th and Walnut streets later this month.

But his writing is not confined to poetry. A stint as an intern at the City Paper allowed him to branch into other avenues. His credits include a couple of book reviews and news stories. He has even tried his hand at investigative reporting, although he admits this is not his forte.

"I can't get worked up about uncovering scandal as much as writing about what I care about," he said. And so his favorite pieces are his music reviews, especially jazz.

He won this gig by being in the right place at the right time. "They needed a music critic and I knew a lot about jazz and had the writing skills." He showed his knowledge in the midst of the interview in Bucks County Coffee, stopping to point out that the '70s funk group Sly and the Family Stone was playing.

But his musical knowledge is not confined to the City Paper. The City Paper "has been a great experience and has opened some doors." His articles have appeared in both Downbeat and Jazziz magazines, and he is a regular contributor to Billboard On-Line.

At the moment Chinen is unsure which door he will be walking through when his time at Penn draws to a close this May. He will either remain in Philadelphia, a city where he has carved a niche for himself both musically and journalistically -- "I can think of no better city to nurture a jazz musician and allow him to hone his craft" -- or he will be off to New York City to try to make it in the music world. "New York is the mecca for launching a career," said Chinen.

For now he is content spending his days working at the Writers House as its assistant coordinator, publicizing the house and its events. But even if he and Philadelphia part ways, he said that he will be back to play with the Virgin Quintet. "The guys are not only great musicians but some of the best people I have ever met."

Originally published on April 16, 1998