Thoughts on the Asian American Jazz Festival

To be honest, I’m still trying to process exactly what happened. Going into the weekend, there was a quite a bit of uncertainty as to how this was all going to play out, so many questions, would anyone show up, how would the musicians sound, would any of the musicians go to see anyone else’s shows?  I think a lot of us went into this festival with a wait and see attitude, with a range of emotions from apathy to trepidation.

But during the course of the weekend, something shifted and I think the change was felt by many of us who performed and watched our peers perform. I could feel a sense of community starting to form right in front of us as we watched set after set of really great writing and playing. While the early Asian American jazz festivals from twenty years ago came about from an intention to draw attention to the AA experience, this years event was almost accidental in its conception, in that at some point Paul Im, who books a jazz series at Cafe Metropol in downtown LA, realized that he had a lot of Asian friends who were great players and simply wanted to get them all to play on the same weekend.

Nevertheless, as the festival progressed, I think there more than a few of us who started to get a grasp of the significance of what we were doing as we began to connect the dots between who we are as artists and as representatives of our heritage. I think for this current generation of Asian Americans, our “Asian-ness” is less of a self-identifier than our parents. To use a sports metaphor, I don’t think we root for Ichiro or Michelle Kwan as much as our parents rooted for Kristi Yamaguchi or Michael Chang.

Or to put it more accurately, I think we actually try not to root as much. I’m probably overgeneralizing, but we don’t want to make it that big a deal. I personally have always wanted to be judged on my own merits, independent of my cultural identity. I didn’t want to be known as “that Asian jazz piano player” but simply a good jazz piano player.  Living in Los Angeles, one of the great melting pots of the world, at a time where even the word “multiculturalism” is something you don’t even need to say, perhpas the need for something like an “Asian American Jazz Festival” is puzzling to some.  I know Paul had recieved at least one email to that effect.

I cannot, however, shake from my mind the notion that all of us really felt something take shape here, that we had inadvertantly unlocked a feeling of belonging and acceptance that we didn’t think we needed or even knew exisited until now.  Talking with my friend the pianist Motoko Honda, we both acknowleged that there was something very comforting about this weekend, and to be sure we and many others have intitiated what will undoubtedly be some strong and long lasting friendships with each other.

Having Jon Jang attend the festival really put the weekend into perspective.  Mr. Jang is one of the early pioneers of the Asian American Jazz movement and a fantastic composer and pianist from the Bay Area.  (For more info on Jon Jang please read this earlier post of mine.)  He had gotten wind of what we were doing down here in LA and sent Paul a friendly email.  Paul immediatly invited Jon to come down to attend the festival and even give a small talk.  How would this scholar and preemminent composer of Asian American music feel about a bunch of younger artists, many of whom have little or no knowlege of those early efforts?

As it turned out, Mr. Jang came away with a newfound hope and enthusiasm for the future of Asian American jazz artists, as he intimated to Paul.  As I drove him back to LAX on Sunday evening, he was brimming with ideas for the next AAJF in Los Angeles, buoyed by what he had heard over the weekend.  From his perspective, we might be entering a new chapter in the history of Asian American jazz.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think at some point what we were doing this weekend became bigger than us.  Our incedental attempt to just get a bunch of talented Asian and Asian American musicians in the same room ended up being swept up in the long arc of the history behind the Asian American jazz movement.  Who knows, perhaps it was this history that nudged us to this very moment we find ourselves in now.  However it happened, I am energized by the events of this weekend, I have a lot of new friends, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for all of us.

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One Response to Thoughts on the Asian American Jazz Festival

  1. Pingback: GF3, Jon Jang, Pan Asian Arkestra w/ Taiko Project @ Asian American Music Festival 2010 |

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