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The Music of the Flowing Stream - Jon Jang interview
Interview, Satellite, Vol. 1, Iss. 3, January 2001

I don't know what to say about Jon Jang. What do you say to your hero--and, after that, what can you say about him? As anyone who's ever been to a book signing knows, after three insipid minutes of predictable chatter about how much you like the artist's work, it just goes downhill. At best, you unconsciously end up using clichés like "it just goes downhill," and at worst, you sound like you're actively striving to persuade everyone that you're a complete idiot.

For example, the first (and really, only) time I 'met' Jon Jang was at a San Jose show with my mother--my question was so garbled, my anxiety so obvious, that even my mom said she couldn't understand what I was talking about. Then, for this interview, I called him from my room before class--the indefinite lag between my dialing his number and him answer on the other end was just like calling a girl I like for the first time. Jang was sick. The possibility of an e-mail interview eliminated the need for actual interaction (both a positive and negative turn), leaving only one thing--writing the introduction.

(Attempt 1: The personal touch)
I don't really know what to say about Jon Jang in the exact same way I don't know how to read the Chinese characters whitened out on this page, just like in my memory. Like, it seems, many Asian Americans, I feel like an interloper in both cultures, and feel ashamed when the woman at Mandarin House gives me a fork or when my Grandfather in Taiwan asks if I've learned Chinese yet. A third generation Chinese American from Palo Alto (two cities from where I grew up), Jang creates music that seems especially moving to me because it serves as an apt metaphor for my own mixed identity--a flowing compromise between my American and Asian personas.

(Attempt 2: Evoke trite but necessary observations by rallying against them)
But for you, I'm not going to spew out the clichés ("East meets West in Jon Jang") or the same old descriptions (Jon Jang, one of the most innovative jazz composers alive and a pioneer in the Asian American musical idiom, elegantly weaves Chinese musical traditions with those of African American classical music, also known as jazz).

(Attempt 3: Aggrandizement)
Officially recognized as one of the 150 artists in the world who's changed jazz since 1983, Jon Jang collects acclaim like trading cards. Downbeat, for example, handed five stars to The Beijing Trio, Jang's new CD, a collaboration with jazz legend Max Roach and Chinese erhu master Jiebing Chen. In the liner notes for "Two Flowers on a Stem," Hale Smith writes that Jon Jang's music "is also further evidence that jazz may become the foundation of a new musical world language." The typical review notes how Jang, winner of NEA and Library of Congress grants, synergistically combines Asian and African American musical genres in a way that is formally inventive yet strikingly expressive, simultaneously, spiritual, personal and politically aware--and complimentary to both cultures, but never stereotypical or detrimental to either.

As Jang says at his record company's site, AsianImprov.com, "My music does not come from the third stream, but the flowing stream." Robustly tender and poignantly beautiful, Jang's work is why we have adjectives in the first place.

(Attempt 4: Hipster betrayal of review itself)
None of this, of course, comes through on paper. In fact, you should throw down this interview and rush out to buy Jang's Two Flowers on a Stem, an incredible achievement with Chen, saxophonist David Murray, Flutist James Newton, among others. Open CD, and play.


Satellite: Having taught at Berkeley and been an artist-in-residence at UC Jazz ensembles, you've been exposed to the campus community. What has been the general reaction of students to your work? What is your reaction to the large Asian student population in Berkeley?

Jon Jang: When I taught the first Asian American music course at UC Berkeley from 1992-95 and UC Irvine in 1995, I realized how disconnected I was from Asian American students.

I also realized that Asian American students were disconnected from the arts, and not just Asian American arts because this country does not nurture cultural literacy. There is a perception that Asian American students who are seriously involved in music generally identify with 18th and 19th Century Western European classical music which allows them to develop as performers. But how does this music today relate to their life as Asian Americans in the United States? In reality, these are not real questions for those involved in that kind of music. There is a subtle parallel relationship between following the conductor or the notes on the page as written in the 18th and 19th Century Western European classical music the Asian feudal tradition of blind kow-towing to authority or family.

As an artist-in-residence at UC Berkeley, the students in the advanced level ensembles have the skill, intelligence and potential to be involved in music as a profession.

Pianist Chad Wagner has already made an impact by his performances in the Bay Area with his peers and with E.W. Wainwright at the San Francisco Jazz Festival. However, I was disappointed by the lack of diversity in the all white male ensembles. As the only Asian American musician in the jazz ensembles at Oberlin during the 1970s, I found there was a greater representation of African American students. When a Chinese American student who graduated from the prestigious Lowell High School failed his audition for an ensemble, it is one reason why I am an advocate for Affirmative Action and why Lowell High School needs to become more diverse. It's not about charity. African American and Latino students contribute more than just sports.

As a solution to the problem, Francis Wong and I were awarded a New Residencies grant from Meet The Composer, a national funder based in New York. The purpose of the three year grant is to develop a three year composer-in-residency with the Oakland Asian Cultural Center. Some of our ideas are to form an Asian American string quartet performing my work about Angel Island, hip hop artists interacting with Chinese percussion, Oaktown Chinatown Music Festival, panel discussions to help encourage and nurture young aspiring artists, whether they be Western European classical or hip hop background to become spokespersons, leaders, visionaries, etc. We want to help play a role in developing each person's individual expression within a collective context.

Satellite: The San Francisco Bay Guardian referred your 1984 album "Are you Chinese or Charlie Chan?" as a tense choice between essentialism and assimilation. This is similar to a dominant theme in Asian American writing is a feeling of alienation--of being an interloper in both American and Asian cultures. In your later works, the conflict seems to have abated. Two Flowers on a Stem, for example, symbolizes how you see your two cultures as symbiotically coexisting on the same branch. I was wondering how you felt about this, and how your Asian American identity has changed over time.

Jang: My second recording, "Are You Chinese or Charlie Chan?" was my first born out of the Asian American consciousness movement in 1984. During the 1980s, the United States moved to the right. Under eight years of Reaganism and two years of Bush, there was a backlash against people of color, working people, women, gays and students. Reaganism also promoted xenophobia and fear of the "foreigner" taking over this country with anti-immigrant bills such as Simpson-Mazzolli and slogans like "Buy American" as an expression of the anti-Japanese import hysteria. Reaganism also contributed to the rise of anti-Asian violence.

The Redress/Reparations movement began with the commission hearings of wartime internees in 1980. During the same year, the National Asian American Telecommunications Association (NAATA) was founded. Academy Award nominated documentary films on the Japanese American internment such as "Unfinished Business" (1985) by Steven Okazaki, and on anti-Asian violence, such as "Who Killed Vincent Chin?" (1987) by Renee Tajima and Christine Choy, were supported by NAATA, representing a reflection of the social conditions of Asian Americans in the United States. Kearny Street Workshop, a collective of writers, visual artists and musicians, presented the first Asian American Jazz Festival in 1981 and still remains the longest running continuous jazz festival in San Francisco. East Wind, a national progressive Asian American magazine which featured politics and culture of Asians in the US, was founded in 1982. This magazine also helped organize art and cultural events at the Japanese Presbyterian Church on Sutter Street in San Francisco Japantown. Japanese American artists and the Japanese American national movement played a leading role during the 1980s After I graduated from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio in 1978, music ceased to be a meaningful experience for me. In 1980, after being denied a promotion because of racism, I became a union activist and a shop steward for mainly African American and Chicano workers at Stanford University for Local 680 SEIU. These African Americans and Chicano workers experienced a greater amount of racism. The only Asian Americans with whom I had contact were the soulless "honorary white" middle management bureaucrats who denied many grievances to the workers of color who I represented.

In 1981, I saw an interesting announcement about an Asian American music workshop in the Stanford student newspaper. When I arrived at the meeting, Francis Wong, a student who worked at the library, was the only other person present. In this amazing dialogue, Francis and I learned that we had a lot in common, including our shared love for the music of John Coltrane, the writings of Amiri Baraka and the importance of Asian Americans fighting for justice, equality, and self-determination. When Francis and I attended the first Asian American Jazz Festival in October 1981, we were liberated and inspired by the music of Japanese Americans Mark Izu and Russel Baba and their collaborations with African American musicians like Eddie Moore, George Sams, Lewis Jordan and mixed blood Anthony Brown. Shortly thereafter, I returned to music and made my first recording, "Jang," with Anthony Brown and Mark Izu. In 1982, I was invited to perform at the first fundraiser for East Wind magazine and was inspired by Asian American political and cultural activists who were dedicated and committed to the struggle for justice and equality. The convergence of these experiences has played an important role in the shaping of my personal development as an artist in the Asian American consciousness movement.

In 1982, Vincent Chin, a young Chinese American, was murdered by two white men in Detroit. He was made a scapegoat as a result of the anti-Japanese import hysteria. His killers were only slapped on the wrist with a $3,000 fine and three years' probation. Many of us in the Asian American communities were outraged. I responded by composing "Are You Chinese or Charlie Chan?/East Wind." What is significant about this work is that it is created by Asian Americans, about Asian Americans, for Asian Americans and created in the Asian American communities.

During the 1990s, I had started listening to Chinese folk songs. When I was creating "Two Flowers on a Stem," in 1994, it was first originally intended to be a love song in the score for the dramatic adaptation of Maxine Hong Kingston's "The Woman Warrior". I composed a melody for the erhu which had characteristics very similar to Chinese folk songs, but placed in my personal context. "Two Flowers on a Stem" expressed the feeling of conflict becoming tenderness and a desire for beauty and strength. It was first dedicated to my Japanese American wife Joyce Nakamura. When "The Woman Warrior" premiered in Los Angeles in 1995, I paid a visit to a close friend of my father's who I hadn't seen in forty years. After he told me the untold story about my father, I added a dedication to my mother. Her American Dream was shattered when my father died tragically in the worst airline disaster during the 1950s. My mother, who was four months pregnant at the time, was denied funeral services for my father at the Glendale Cemetery in southern California because he was Chinese American --even though he had burned to ashes. Two years later, my mother suffered a nervous breakdown and had to take electric shock treatment in Belmont, California. Despite these hardships, my mother survived and raised three children on her own. "Two Flowers on a Stem" is about the lily that can endure in the swamp.

Satellite: What was it like working with drummer Max Roach and ehru virtuoso Jeibing Chen, two highly accomplished musicians from very different backgrounds, on your new CD "Beijing Trio? Also, in preparing for your upcoming show, "When Sorrow Turns to Joy," how have you noticed Chinese opera singer Mei Lanfang and blues singer Paul Robeson interact with each other musically?

Jang: The tradition and legacy of the music of Max Roach has been about democracy. I learn and draw from that tradition but I certainly have not achieved it on the level of Max Roach, one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. We are all about music and life through our actions as composers, performers, spokespeople, educators, cultural ambassadors and citizens of the world. Jiebing Chen is an erhu virtuoso who has already reinvented the instrument. Until Jiebing met us and other artists from that tradition, such as James Newton and David Murray, the context of her past and present experiences allowed her to become a great performer and educator.
"When Sorrow Turns to Joy --Songlines: The Spiritual Tributary of Paul Robeson and Mei Lanfang" pays tribute to Paul Robeson (1898-1976) and Mei Lanfang (1894-1961) who were two great artists and humanitarians. Inspired by our visits and performances in South Africa and China in 1994, James Newton and I search for the meaning and connection between Africa and China in our lives through the historic legacies of Paul Robeson and Mei Lanfang. By the way, Paul Robeson was NOT a blues singer; he was a bass or bass baritone who brought dignity to people in the United States by performing African American spirituals in major concert halls all over the world.

Satellite: When you played in Berkeley at the end of last year, you were able to quickly recite a passage from Duke Ellington's Music is my Mistress, with the page number included, completely from memory. Ellington is often cited as a strong influence on you--what was it like playing the Ellington--piano position on the new version of Ellington's 'Far East Suite'?

Jang: Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's "Far East Suite" was inspired by the Duke Ellington Orchestra State Department tour in 1963. Unlike Ellington works such as "A Tone Parallel to Harlem" and "Black, Brown and Beige," Ellington was culturally sensitive and wisely did not want to parallel the sound of a foreign land. He wanted to compose music based on his immediate impressions. Anthony Brown's Asian American Orchestra did not have the opportunity to tour Asia to replicate a similar process. But what is significant about Dr. Anthony Brown's new concept of the "Far East Suite" is that he brought Asia of the San Francisco Bay Area to Ellington and Strayhorn's "Far East Suite" by including the wealth of Asian instrumentalists originally from China and Iran who live in the Bay Area. Dr. Brown turned this work into the "Far East Bay Suite" (laughing) which programmatically coincides with one of his early original works "Suite Oakland." Having this work performed at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center is also important because it reflects more of the Pan Asian multicultural communities that exist in Oakland. As much as the term "Asian American" is tired for me personally, the name of Asian American Orchestra is important because it recognizes that the music was born out of the Asian American communities If Duke Ellington were alive today, maybe he would favor Cantonese Chinese food (his previous second choice) over steak and grapefruit.

Satellite: Inter-mixing of music from different cultures--even between Asian music and jazz--has been done before. Most of your reviewers seem to agree that you do it right. You said that when you first heard the band Hiroshima, who incorporates Japanese instruments with traditional jazz ones, you really couldn't get into it, giving the impression that there's a certain aesthetic to this cross-cultural inter-weaving, one that's different from just using Asian instruments in a jazz set. How do you think an Asian musical aesthetic differs from those of Western classical music or jazz?

Jang: Skip this question. Too many problems with terms such as Asian aesthetics, western classical music and jazz.

Satellite: You've described your music as both spiritual and political; how do you feel the two relate in your work?

Jang: I am blessed to have been surrounded by great African-American artists such as Max Roach, James Newton, and David Murray. In reading W.E.B. Du Bois's "The Souls of Black Folk," I learned that African American sorrow songs and spirituals have been the foundation of African American culture. Their churches has continued to produced great music and leaders not only in this country but all over the world. Max Roach's mother was a gospel singer and his great aunt a gospel pianist. James Newton comes out of the Black Baptist Church. Paul Robeson's father and grandfather were ministers. When Paul Robeson was praising the liberation of third world nations, he quoted the Bible by saying "by their deeds shall ye know them" ... and the colored nations cannot go wrong by taking that ancient truth as their guide. For most Chinese Americans of my generation who grew up in the white suburbs, we were disconnected spiritually from the religion of our homeland, and we did not create a distinctive kind of Chinese American Christianity.

Satellite: Fifteen years ago, your work seemed much more concerned with politics: Rodney King, the death of Vincent Chin, and Tiananmen for starters. What do you think of the current position of Asian-Americans in America?

Jang: "The Color of Reality," which is about four victims of racism and national oppression (Rodney King, Leonard Peltier, Vincent and Lily Chin and Eleanor Bumpurs) was commissioned by Cal Performances, UC Berkeley in 1993. So it wasn't fifteen years ago. Moreover, David Murray and I composed and recorded "Two Portraits of Capital Punishment" for Mumia Abu-Jamal which will be released on Asian Improv Records in September of this year. I believe music is for all occasions.

On the position of Asian Americans: As W.E.B. Dubois once said in 1903, "The problem with the twentieth century is the problem of the color line." Look at our history of racist exclusionist laws. The Chinese were the first ethnic group denied admission into this country during the 19th Century period of free and unrestricted immigration. The Chinese Exclusion Act lasted from 1882 to 1943. With the history of wars with Asian countries, the Chinese are still viewed as the enemy or foreigners. "American beats Kwan." Wen Ho Lee. On the other hand, we do have the opportunity to become "honorary whites," similar to the apartheid system in South Africa.

However, we should not sound cynical. We must develop a broad understanding, not just through the fetish of intelligence or rhetoric, but through deeds, not words to quote a title of a Max Roach recording.


All content, unless otherwise noted, (c) Ken Chen, 1998-2006. Ken Chen can be reached by email.

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