Asian American Jazz: A Personal and Historical Retrospective

Below in its entirety is the article I was asked to write for the 2009 Asian American Jazz Festival in Los Angeles, CA. It was cathartic for me to write this as it caused me to think deeply about and confront my own feelings about being both Asian American and a jazz musician, not necessarily in that order. -GF

Asian American Jazz: A Personal and Historical Retrospective
By Gary Fukushima

In October of 2000 I attended a concert in Seattle, Washington featuring a performance of Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite as played by an ensemble of mostly Asian American musicians. The concert was in support of a Grammy-nominated recording done by the San-Francisco based Asian American Orchestra, directed by drummer and ethnomusicologist Dr. Anthony Brown, who is hapa, Japanese American and African American. It was an excellent performance, one that remained faithful to Ellington’s spirit while incorporating in Dr. Brown’s words, “some of the indigenous flavors, colors, textures, and patterns one encounters traveling the new Silk Road.” I had a personal interest in this type of reimagining along Asian themes, having a year earlier served as musical director for the first Asian American production of the musical West Side Story, into which we added taiko drums, martial arts, and Filipino dance to create perhaps the most original adaptation of the celebrated work. As for the Far East Suite, I came away from the show impressed by the music and encouraged that yes indeed, there were Asian Americans who were also “successful” jazz musicians.

Little did I know at the time that what I had just witnessed was the apogee of a movement decades in the making, a movement to establish and recognize Asian American contributions to jazz and music in general. Anthony Brown’s Asian American Orchestra was part of a larger community of Asian American musicians living in the Bay Area, home to an independent record label called Asian Improv Records. AIR was founded in 1987 by pianist Jon Jang and saxophonist Francis Wong, who were both profoundly influenced by the Asian American consciousness movement (punctuated by the push for redress and reparations for Japanese Americans interned during WWII) as well as being motivated by the desire to record their works in the face of discrimination and disenfranchisement by the jazz and creative music establishment. In an article for In Motion Magazine, Wong notes:

“We were trying to be active with our music and trying to identify with the Asian American consciousness movement. It was a very positive period. If it wasn’t for that time we would not have been moved to create a lot of the work in the context that we did…We wouldn’t have been moved to create an organization or vehicle if it wasn’t for that political context.”

This growing Asian American jazz community featured talented players and composers including bassist Mark Izu, pianist Glenn Horiuchi, koto player Miya Masaoka, and saxophonist Gerald Oshita, an elder statesmen who some consider to be one of the first prominent Asian American jazz musicians. Over the past two decades this community has spread well beyond the Bay Area, with acclaimed artists such as saxophonist Fred Ho in New York and bassist Tatsu Aoki in Chicago, where he is the founder and artistic director of Asian Improv arts Midwest (AIRMW). The widely celebrated pianist and composer Vijay Iyer was an integral part of the San Francisco Asian American jazz community in the mid 90’s, and he represents a new generation of Asian American jazz musicians that include percussionist Susie Ibarra, saxophonist Rudresh Manthappa, vocalist Jen Shyu, and trumpeter Cuong Vu. In 1981 writer George Leong produced the First Annual San Francisco Asian American Jazz Festival, the first of many festivals that have celebrated the Asian American experience in jazz and creative music, with presentations that span over two decades in San Francisco and Chicago. The third year of the festival was produced by Paul Yamazaki. Mark Izu became the principal producer of the festival from 1984 until 1998. This year’s festival in Los Angeles will hopefully be a continuation of this important tradition of presenting and introducing Asian American artists and their works to new audiences.

Original composition has been from the beginning the focus of many Asian American jazz musicians, and particularly the artists of AIR (and its offshoot organization, Asian Improv Arts), to the point where Jang and his contemporaries can accurately describe themselves as more than Asian American jazz musicians or jazz composers, but as, put simply, Asian American composers. Indeed, the scope and magnitude of the writing is breathtaking, with landmark works that define and give voice to the Asian American experience. Jang on his own has an extensive body of work, starting in 1984 with Are You Chinese or Charlie Chan?, and continuing with Reparations Now! Concerto for Jazz Ensemble and Taiko, Tiananmen!, and the exquisite Two Flowers on a Stem, all of which earned Jang a place in the Downbeat International Critics’ Poll for three consecutive years in the ‘90s. Jang recently penned the ambitious Chinese American Symphony, which pays homage to the Chinese who built the first transcontinental railroad in the United States. Other important works by Asian American composers include Poston Sonata by Glenn Horiuchi, Circle of Fire by Mark Izu, Compositions/Improviastions by Miya Masaoka, and Underground Railroad to My Heart by Fred Ho. Other offerings continue to reflect the jazz background of many of these artists, including a personal favorite of mine, Monk’s Moods by Anthony Brown, a follow up to The Far East Suite and featuring Monk sideman Steve Lacy on saxophone. Jang and Brown and many other artists including Francis Wong, Fred Ho, and Jason Kao Hwang have received commissions for works in jazz as well as chamber music, orchestral music, dance and theater.

Jang and Wong in many ways identified with the plight of African Americans, citing the actor/singer/athlete/academic/activist Paul Robeson as a model of one who combined considerable intellectual and artistic gifts with a desire to raise the level of human dignity for all peoples. Jang himself has collaborated with many African American musicians including drummers Max Roach and Billy Hart, flautist James Newton, and saxophonist David Murray. Just as he sang Negro spirituals in concert halls to call attention to the African American experience, one can see echoes of Robeson reflected in the decision of Asian American composers to write for koto, taiko, Chinese and Filipino gongs, Indian tabla, Chinese mouth organ (sheng), Chinese Viola (zhonghu), and other Asian instruments. These instruments when used in jazz or other western music contexts serve as a metaphor for the parts of us that remain Asian even as we assimilate into all things American. Those sentiments arise in me when I hear Senator Daniel Inouye tell the story of how he lost his arm fighting for the U.S. in the 442nd Regiment, or when I see General Eric Shinseki and Governor Gary Locke chosen for Cabinet positions in the Obama administration, or when Ichiro scores a run and high-fives his manager, Don Wakamatsu.

Jazz, like our military, our political system, and our national pastime, is an American contribution to the world we live in, and I am proud that my being a jazz musician helps to define me as an American. I believe that as an American I have as a legitimate a claim to this music as anyone black or white, and in some ways jazz musicians of my ethnic heritage are indelibly linked to the origins of jazz in the shared shame and suffering felt by generations of African Americans and Asian Americans. I must admit that as a fourth generation American I am more emotionally removed from the cultural and socioeconomic struggles that stirred pioneers like Jon Jang and Francis Wong to action, but I realize that it was through efforts such as theirs a generation ago that has helped to create a more accepting, truly multicultural musical environment that exists today, an environment that allows all of us to identify ourselves proudly as both jazz musicians and of Asian descent. All of us performing this weekend are part of the Asian diaspora, a coming together of artists who can claim Asia as our ancestral home, and from that we unashamedly deem ourselves “Asian American Jazz Musicians”, a product of both our lineage and experience. We acknowledge our heritage among each other, yet now more tacitly than before, since those before us have already initiated the fight for our identity, and now we are winning that battle evermore each day.

–Gary Fukushima

There are many resources online for more information. Here are just a few:

In Motion Magazine interview with Jon Jang and Francis Wong (a must read):

Another great interview of Jon Jang by Ken Chen:

Also this guy:

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