Jon Jang, Jazz Pianist, Interview

Interview w/ Jon Jang
2 CDs

CD 1:

J: Good afternoon.

D: Do you remember me?

J: I don’t.

D: 1988. I did one of the first Asian Improv stories for NPR. 1988. You and Francis.

J: We didn’t have an office. Do you remember if it was live?

D: Chinatown.

J: Chinese progressive Association.

D: Anyway. Hope it’s warmer there than it is here. It’s 30 degrees. Are you set up?

J: I’m hearing you on the left side but my voice is on the right side.

M: I’ll fix that.

D: Fixed?

J: Better but I hear you, Dmae is on the left side. And on the right side is my voice?

D: Can we remove Jon’s voice?

J: Oh now I can hear my voice on both headphones. Oh, there. This is good now. MJ did it.

D: Is he rolling?

M: Yes.

J: Yes, he’s rolling.

D: Intro yourself.

J: My name is Jon Jang. I’m a composer, pianist and educator. I’m a spokesperson too. I’m an artist citizen and I’ve been making music for over 30 years.

D: Is it okay to edit & broadcast this interview.

J: I Jon Jang give permission to Dmae Roberts to edit this broadcast.

D: I’ll have a formal release later when we decide which music to use.

J: Okay…

You’re going to need to edit that.

The first instrument that I played was snare drum. And my uncle Fei was active in the SF Chinatown’s new years parade, the drum & bugle corp. One day he brought a drum and that was my first instrument.

I was five years old but I didn’t perform in the concert band until 4th grade.

I just played the snare drum parts to Souza marches in the school band.

And then I switched to the French horn shortly after that.

I didn’t start the piano until I was 19.

I think John Coltrane began an instrument when he was 14 or 17. It’s not that late. But it is unusual.

I performed on French horn and cornet and then back to french horn between 4th grade and middle school. So up to the 9th grade.

When I was a student at UC Berkeley in 1973, let me backtrack. When I was in high school a friend of mine, Robert Freiberg was a drummer, performing professionally with Eddie Gale Stephens, a trumpeter proclaimed as the jazz ambassador. He was on an early recording. So my friend introduced me to the music of John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Miles Davis. So it was a very inspiring period. Also my cousin who was a visual artist introduced C. Taylor to me.

When I heard the music of John Coltrane, specifically the live version of my favorite things, I wore out the record. I would be playing it, but mainly the music of John Coltrane. The early 60s and later period. And in high school I had a history teacher, teaching part of an alternative curriculum going on in the early 70s. he knew I was interested in music. He gave me the book ‘blues people’ and I learned how the music was related to life. The basic premise was as the lives of African Americans change, the music changed. So the music was about changing tradition.

As an American born Chinese, and this was in the 70s when I could name the 5 Asian American students at my high school. It was white middle-class. This was in Palo Alto where Stanford U is. so during the late 1960s we had the 3rd world student strike in November of 1968 so what was going on all over the world and in this country was there was this counter-hegemonic movement. People were looking outside the leave it to beaver mentality and saying the changes going on all over the world. there were the student movement, oppressed nationalities, women’s movement t, gay and lesbian movement, there were a number of movements where people were sharply redefining society. And part of it as an American born Chinese I said who am I? And to know that I had to know where I came from.

My father was an immigrant born in china. He was a son of a paper son. During the 19th century Chinese were the first ethnic group denied entrance in this country.

My father, he was a chemical engineer. An intellectual, a Christian, and active in the Chinese American community, but in 1956, June 30th, my father died in a 2-commercial airplane collision over the Grand Canyon. And I was only 2 years old. In some ways that death symbolized the death of my Chinese culture because after my mother, who was working class. three brothers siblings. Followed the traditional Chinese Confucian sense of being subordinate. So she became subordinate to the environment of Palo Alto.

She was born in San Francisco. My mother was born in SF in 1924 and she had 3 brothers and later she, grew up there.

My mother did not work. She lived off the settlement of the lawsuit that the group of victims sued TWA.

I composed two flowers on a stem in 1994 and it was one of the themes for the dramatic adaptation of ‘the woman warrior.’ I dedicated it to my mother because at the end of the theatrical run of the woman warrior in January 1995, the brother of my father’s best friend told me the story that my father’s…the funeral service for my father in 1956 was denied at the Glendale cemetery because my family was Chinese. There was no body of my father. So my family had to hold funeral services at Hollywood hills.

I graduated…at 19…okay, 1973, I decided to drop out of UC Berkeley and being piano lessons. I remember that day, July 17th, 1973. I remember that day be cause that’s the date when John Coltrane passed away. Throughout my life there have been epiphanies. Perhaps messages of god speaking to me. I have perfect pitch on the piano. And he was speaking to me but perhaps I wasn’t listening. So I dropped out and began studying lessons with the neighborhood piano teacher. Most of her students were teachers. She is German American, and no nonsense. Well, Genny Lim the poet once said to me. I said I’m an atypical Chinese American she said you’re atypical. She was supportive to me because I didn’t have a piano. I would go to work as a gardener, practice, and then I would go to a jazz ensemble rehearsal at night. Then, after working as a gardener for a Japanese American garden and also as a busboy I saved enough money to buy my first piano at the age of 20. then six months later I decided I’m making progress studying piano and I wanted to take I tot another level. So I applied to music schools in New York and Oberlin. And I flew to New York to do the auditions and got accepted but I decided to go to Oberlin because it felt right. It was a top college, fostered free-thinking and had an excellent music school. I had a great piano teacher, inspired by Artery Shnauble. His teacher would say you’re not a pianist, you’re a musician. And my other teacher was Lobin of African American music. That’s where I discovered spirituals.

It was a year then I bought my first piano and I auditioned after a year and a half.

I just loved music. I wasn’t conscious about whether I was going to make a career out of it. I was under a lot of pressure to keep up because most of the piano performance students had started younger and they had the best pianos, the best teachers. So I had to keep up. And then at the same time I wasn’t exclusively studying 18th and 19th century western European classical music. I was also in a number of jazz ensembles and took composition lessons from Professor Logan who received fellowships and written large orchestral works. I was also open to learning about world music and studied African kora, the 20 stringed West African instrument.

At that time, there was a gamelan ensemble. But that was part of what they call the experimental college course. In ethnomusicology it’s a marginalized department. You have to look at the hierarchy of ethnomusicology and there’s usually one professor trying to represent all the world’s music. In Asian music it’s music of Indonesia and Japan. And I believe that has to do with the political relationship of the US and China.

There were 3 American-born…let me rephrase. There were 3 Asian American students in the conservatory. There were a number of international Asians in the conservatory. When I transferred to Oberlin there was a minority student meeting and there were 20 African American students and me. I was not so much an atypical Chinese American but perhaps an oxymoron.

This was 1975 to 78.

For what I was doing, I was the only one. In the Asian American movement at that time, there were Asian American folk sings such as Charlie chin, they had a group called grain of sand. There was a number of Asian American student political activists. Some of them were Marxists Leninists. So the grain of sand, a folk group, a lot of the message in their music was bout social change and social justice. Another Asian American group emerging was Hiroshima, a fusion group. For laypersons their music was accessible. Whereas for me who embraced the music of John Coltrane, that, you had to…

For me, the reason why I wanted to go into music was because I wanted to love it, I wanted to live it, and I wanted to contribute something honest and meaningful. With JC’s music it wasn’t a question that I wanted to be different and hip. It wasn’t a sense of arrogance. But until later I found out, I think when I became a Christian, the song ‘dear lord’ by Coltrane takes a different meaning. It’s not just the song, it’s the words and how she sings it and what it means.

Which period could I address?

I had moved to Santa Cruz because one of m y high school friends was a jazz guitarist. Okay, should I bring it lower?

I’m relaxed so that’s good. Thank you Michael.

So, I returned to Santa Cruz to hopefully play music with my friend from high school Barrett Miller, a jazz guitarist, but trying to make music and make a career out if it was not going to be sustainable. So I quit and worked at Stanford U in a working class job and became a union activist. From 1980 to 82. It was SCIU local 680 at that time and then it changed to 15. Service… Now they’re back to 715.

Yes. First I experienced racism from job promotion discrimination. And then a lot of my workers were African American and Chicano so I got involved in being the union activist representing them. So eventually I got connected with a lot of the student political struggles. And this is when I met Francis Wong. The Stanford daily which is the student newspaper had an advertisement and it read Asian American music workshop at the Firehouse. So I showed u pat the firehouse and all there was was Francis Wong and me. so we began a conversation and we had a lot in common. For me it’s always been I’m the dominant person, I like to talk. And he’s a good listener. So after my long epic presentation of who I am he kind of responded and I was like wow, we had so much in common. He gave me a newspaper called ‘Unity’ which had Mary Baracca which was a lot of articles around black liberation. This was 1981.

I think the turning point was when we had both attended the first Asian American jazz festival in October of 1981.

This was 1981.

Yes, this was presented by Kearney street workshop, an Asian American arts organization founded in 1972. but more importantly this group of artists were based in the I hotel and were part of the struggle to stop the evictions of Manong tenants.

There was a group led by Russel Baba, that’s a third-generation Japanese American. And he performed on saxophone but also on Japanese traditional instruments. And his wife Jeannie Aiko Mercer, they’re great. What they bring to that community…

Russel Baba had a group that had the great drummer Eddie Moore. And that’s what did it to me. and the Violinist Michael White. And then there was an other group called United Front which featured George Sams, Lewis Jordan, Mark Izu, who used a Chinese mouth instrument, and Anthony brown, multiple percussionist, African and Japanese American. So I would describe this period as Americans transplanted from the Midwest who collaborated with middle-class Japanese Americans.

At Oberlin I didn’t have any models. I performed with the white jazz ensembles or with African Americans. I’ll just lay this out. I was also the Sunday church pianist for the Rust Methodist Church at Oberlin.

Shortly after that, I’ll get to how…I’ll sew it together. I was inspired by that concert and I wanted to record some of my music and work with united front. So I approached George Sams who was the representative, the person on top of RPM records. He encouraged me to make a recording. We did it in February 1982. which at that time thelonious monk had passed away. I mention it because on the back of my recording there is a placard that says monk: yes. Mozart: no. I was still at Stanford U and I put out this album and there was this buzz and people got to find out more about me. there was a magazine called East wind, a nation-wide magazine about Asian American politics and culture and I was asked to perform at a benefit concert. I wrote a piece called East wind in about 10 minutes for that concert. And did it with Francis Wong.

That was in Feb 1982 was a recording called Jang. And I can’t remember the first piece I recorded…

I would say around the time Francis and I co-founded Asian Improv records in 1987 and Asian Improv Arts in 1988.

first of all, one of the weaknesses in what I was trying to do in making music was I didn’t have an ensemble. I formed one with Francis and Eddie Moore and jams Lewis. in order to get work you need to make a recording –an expensive business card. in stead of trying to go to some record company, which is unrealistic, and then the kind of music we’re making. even if they accepted it it would take years for them to put it out. we were aware of the legacy of independent recording. there was black swan records with African Americans making their own recordings, Charles minus and roach with their own records. ACM. particularly African American artists who were shut out – creating their own records under the self-reliance movement. and there were other groups during the 60s, the …. (names them) we were inspired by that legacy. we put out this recording called the ballad of bullet. was the Jon Jang four in one quartet. and we called the label Asian improve records. and the man who wrote the liner notes called our music Asian improvised music.

we have I think I guess I’m…I’m tilting my head. it means I’m relaxed but it’s making…

so going back to the success of Asian improve records and Asian improve arts. let me put it this way: the goal of Asian improve records and AIA was never to promote those as organizational record company. the goal was to help develop artists. they’re one and the same. AIA is served as a presenter of music and most recently supporting multi-disciplinary arts.

we’re, times are tough now but I think Francis and I are both Chinese and we’ve dealt with crisis, we’ve dealt with disasters. we’ve had to cut back a little bit but that’s part of the cycle. during the 90s we were given opportunities and now we have to create our opportunities.

we’re a nonprofit. we have an office in downtown SF in the twin towers. so we’ve gotten a lot of support for justice matters, a social justice organization that develops young leaders.

I think for Francis Wong and me, we’ve grown artistically, politically, in all ways we’ve grown but the problem is this country is moving backwards.

the model for me was Paul Robeson. he was an artist citizen. he wasn’t trying to be political but if part of your purpose is to find out who you are and where you come from you need to be satisfied with yourself. for me it’s always going back to history and seeing how that relates to the present. as a Chinese American I learn about the history when the Chinese first came here. they were welcome in SF during the celebration of California into the union in 1850 and were lauded by the governor in 1852 during the 4th of July that the Chinese are going to be model citizens, vote, go to schools. and then in 1854 one Chinese person is killed and then they’re relegated to this lower caste system with other people of color. to me the history of this country is about hatred of people of color, institutional racism. I offer this phrase: one day American, one day alien. or one day, non person. that’s mine. it came through my whole life, all the struggles I have witnessed. with Chinese Americans we’ve always been perceived as foreigners. in the 19th century there was the development of yellow peril. ‘the last days of the republic’ is fictional all about the Chinese taking over. there is this yellow peril myth that was born since the 19th century. the accusation of the Chinese American scientist, Wen Ho Lee as a spy. and then this country refusing for the Chinese to buy Unocal. so here we are now and this was even before WB Dubois when he wrote the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line and we’re seeing this problem is not just in the US but we’re seeing it in Paris and London. responding to it is one thing but one of the positive things about making music is that we work with a lot of other people of color. for me it’s been the kinship of African Americans and Chinese Americans. this is something Paul Robeson, WB Dubois, deop, they saw the connection and the kinship. so I’m trying to make sure the candles keep burning.

I do but I guess it’s kind of…I can’t respond to it in a generic sense because there’s different reasons why Asian Americans are going into music as a career. I would say in general there are a lot of Asian Americans or Asian pacific islander music in western European classical music. particularly those of the middle or upper class. now if you’re asking the question Asian American musicians trying to follow paths of Francis Wong and me? okay.

yeah. let me, I have a lot of different ways to respond to this. there’s one person who’s no, I think she wants to become a lawyer. she played cello but also taught at SF state. Dina Sheck. but she once told me she had two groups of friends, her Asian American music friends and her Asian American political friends. so that’s one thing. I’ll be very concrete about an example. one young Asian American artist, in his 30s, Jeff Chan, he’s a saxophonist. and he was one of the musicians Francis Wong helped nurture during the 90s. when Jeff moved from concord to SF that had an impact. in SF you have a physical history of Asian Americans. Chinatown, Angel Island, Japan town. I mention this because Jeff Chan is Japanese and Chinese. you have this physical history. and by the way I live in the SF Nob Hill district walking distance from Chinatown and five blocks from the first Chinese American history museum. so that made a huge impact. but what’s difficult for young Asian American artists is there isn’t a movement to connect music to history that we had during the 70s and 80s. so one of things we did as artists serving as mentors is we help identify resources for them to get work. so Jeff Chan was able to apply for a grant to write a piece about a continuum, celebrating their legacy. it was a 10,000 dollar grant and was something I was fighting against multiculturalism but for cultural equity. because threw ere multicultural wars in the early 90s. so Jeff Chan got what he could get out of san Francisco and moved to Chicago. it’s more of a jazz town. so we moved our record company to Chicago.

yes. going back to your question about the success of Asian improve. Francis Wong is more the Asian improve spokesperson. for me it’s a second or 3rd hat. let me get to the 90s. yes, the impact the success of Asian improve arts and AIR is that we inherited the Asian American jazz festival from Kearney street workshop and brought Tatsi Ioki to create the Chicago jazz festival. and Jeff Tong a Korean American from…and in 1992 we had five Asian American jazz festivals in the country. Cal State LA.

I think that Asian Americans. to follow a path similar to what Francis and I are doing. it’s very difficult. Asian Americans can participate in jazz. there are a number of jazz ensembles they can join in colleges. but in my experience a number of Asian Americans are in the big band but not the small band – they read the music but don’t improvise. on the west coast it’s dominated by white students. but I’m not really part of that IAJE community. the international jazz educators association community.

it depends on your goals. if you had to follow the path Francis Wong and I were trying to do, a lot of the young musicians. it isn’t harder. in one sense. the reason why we created an AA jazz festival was to crate opportunities for us to perform. Jay Ire who is a pianist composer. Huadrish, a saxophonist moved to new York and are doing well. there are bay area musicians who are doing quite well. It’s just being in san Francisco it’s difficult.

I’m about to release a new recording called Paper Son, Paper Songs. it features my new ensemble, Jon Jang seven. it’s a return to the SF bay area community, I get to reunite with some members who helped define my music works (lists names) and also for me to have a new experience with musicians who have contributed to the bay area for a long time like (names). I’m also been commissioned by the Sacramento philharmonic orchestra to compose the Chinese American symphony and it’s a work that pays tribute to the Chinese who built the first transcontinental railroad in the early 19th century. the premier scheduled date is April 28th 2007 and that will be in Sacramento. it’s called the Chinese American symphony. and I was inspired to compose this symphony when I was a student at Oberlin. it was a dream I had. I had been introduced the legacy of African American composers in the classical idiom. hale smith who I took lessons from and his work contours. Eric dalphy.

during, when I was a student at Oberlin, going back to your question about trying to find yourself. during the 70s you had Alex Haley’s roots and then I read ‘blues people’ and so it gave me a framework for me about trying to think about what music did the Chinese bring? the book said Africans came to the US as slaves and brought their songs with them. singing a work song in Africa is different than forced labor in another country. later I discovered the miracle of the spirituals they didn’t even speak the same language but when they adopted Christianity they created songs that were unbelievable. It made me feel I could do things that were not believed they could be done. Tommy Dorsey was considered the father of gospel music but he was inspired by others. he was a Methodist minister but defied that and he couldn’t read. he had to take pieces of newspaper and learned how to read the bible. what was I going to say? for me, when you learn about what people did, African American people. it makes you think it doesn’t for me yes, there is no written history about Chinese Americans. you have to go after it. there has to be that kind of desire. and so eventually I was able to do this but it’s not something you can get access to. there is no actual recordings but you can, when I go to Chinatown there are some of these songs that used to be sung on the fruit stands. there are Cantonese songs, the majority of the Chinese that came to the US were from the Guangdong province.

oh yes I know Wilma pang.

I think we se that with African Americans their music was transformed and changed but with Chinese it stayed pretty much unchanged in the immigrant community. when it was defunct for Chinese opera musicians to come to the US the Chinese were inventive in using other instruments to replace those Chinese instruments. today you might see a saxophone or a cello.

my greatest success? that I’m able to make music. and able to offer it to a number of people whoa re moved by it and surrounded by people who love my music and love and I’m able to share that with them.

my greatest failure is my greatest success because failure is an aspect of discovery. I guess that’s what’s different about me than about Asian Americans. is I’m not afraid in making a mistake, unless it results in a death of me or somebody. if you don’t try to live your dreams you’re not living. this film I was inspired by, one of kurosawa’s early films. Hikiru. which means to live. it’s about a city bureaucrat who doesn’t do anything, he ahs a meaningless job, gets complains, but he passes on to another city bureaucrat. he’s diagnosed with a serious disease. so if he’s going to die it raises the question what is the meaning of live. and he ends up building a park for the community and become s a hero. that’s what brings meaning to your life. you’re bringing something to humanity.

there’s not one dream that…one of the dreams is that in 1994 jams Newton who is also a friend of mine for 20 years, we were both invited to perform at the arts alive festival in south Africa. this was 4 ½ months after the end of apartheid. and it was like utopia. and I never could have believed in my lifetime that apartheid could have ended. unfortunately euphoria in that country was like a drug, because afterwards things didn’t progress like that. so my dream is there can be that change for a long period. what Charles Minus said is let me children hear music.

I have a 10 year old daughter. she is a gymnast. she is on the competitive gymnastics tem and moved up to level 6. she did well on the state championships and moved up to 12 hours a week of practice. and she attends the first public Chinese immersion school in the country, where the majority of instruction is taught in Cantonese and in the middle grades mandarin. Alice Fong Yu was the first Chinese American teacher hired in the school district. my whole life is living Chinese American history and living Chinese American future I hope.

it sounds like you wanted…

I thought maybe I might be. a lot of times because what my experience is. it’s not something that’s popular.


I’m giving you 3 commercial CDs. one is big ben behind barbed wire. so this is about the reparations period. the tracks are 11 and 12 that if you use them. but…

I’m sending you all these CDs so you can make a decision. then I have Tiananmen, which has great wall, gold mountain. that’s a tribute to Chinese workers, track #3. midway through 6 is a part that’s fast, a jazz 6/8 is really like new beginnings. it’s just an option. because it’s along work I want to tell you where to listen. that’s an upbeat jazz gospel. it kind of expresses the feeling of the political upbeat. it’s instrumental music.

the past practice is this recording and the next recording is soul note which is an Italian label and I’ve had no problem getting their permission.

I was trying to get something close to the period of the music you wanted. let me see if these 4 I give you will work. so fifth modernization. track 7 is a version of the butterfly lover’s song. so you could use that one. are we recording this? that’s why I was listing…

we’re recording this. then, two flowers on a stem. this is to me the best recording.

CD 2

see if these four that I give you will work. so that’s track #6, fifth modernization the middle of that. track 3 is gold mountain, railroad workers. track 7 is a version of the butterfly lover’s song. are we recording this?

then two flowers on a stem. this is to me the best recording. we have 2 flowers, which is track 1.

you’re not going to get any max roach recording. it’s too confusing. I’m trying to make it simple.

so this one has 2 flowers on a stem and then variation on a song.. that’s also like new beginnings, #5, and then #6 is butterfly lover’s song. and then I have although my engineer doesn’t say it’s not for production, it is a copy of a mastered of my next CD which has new beginnings on it. we did it in a recording studio, we mixed it and mastered it. I think for radio it’s fine. the first cut is flower drum song, and then the last cut #8 is new beginnings. so you might want to listen to that first.

I would prioritize the non-commercial recording, first and last track. and then two flowers on a steam. if you want me to I could leave you two CDs and that will bee… because when I work with filmmakers they want a lot and with radio I think it’s the same but if you’re fine with these 2 CDs then that’s great.

so this is just going to be a 5 minute piece that’s part of the one hour show

when I talk to Reese it’s conceptual but it’s hard to get Max’s permission on it.

at our age we’ve just got to do it and move on.

D: It’s been a pleasure and I look forward to listening to the tracks. unless you have any other questions. I’ll send you an email attachment with the contract.


D: If I can have Michael over, that’d be great. And thanks so much Jon.

Thanks so much and thanks Michael for going overtime. he knows if he’s going to do something with Jon Jang…