By Jeff Chan.

For some reason, music has been with me my whole life. Or most of it, at least. I write “for some reason because I remember little to no music ever being played in my home while growing up in Concord, CA. But, again, for some reason, my older brother joined band and I did likewise when I was old enough. Not because of any particular interest I had in music… I just thought it was what you were supposed to do. I didn’t even know what instruments there were. I asked my mother for advice and she said “saxophone sounds nice.” I look back on that now, and I’m pretty sure she said that because my cousin had quit playing saxophone, so we could use his instrument without having to buy a new one. So when I entered fourth grade, El Monte Elementary had a new alto saxophonist.

Jeff Chan. Photo by Nami Ogata.

Playing saxophone in band really sucked. I did enjoy being part of the band, but musically, there’s nothing interesting for a saxophone to do in concert band. But when I got to junior high, we could join jazz band, which had a whole row of saxophones right up front. I thought “this has to be more interesting.” So I played in jazz band. Up into high school, my music career was pretty unremarkable. I was a decent enough player – could mostly play the notes on the page – but I wanted to be better. I decided to take my teacher’s advice and listen to some jazz. But to who? What recordings? Remember, this is before Google when research took real effort. And jazz seemed so old and unrelatable. But eventually I got over that and started looking and asking around. After some false starts, a friend of mine played the Miles Davis album Star People for me.

It was unlike anything I had ever heard. I did not like it. But supposedly Miles was one of the people to listen to, so I kept on working at it. Around this time, Herbie Hancock’s Rockit was popular, and I learned that Herbie and Miles had worked together. I thought that sounded interesting, so I started looking into Miles’ earlier music and learned that Herbie Hancock had indeed worked with him, and before that, Miles had a band with John Coltrane, and before that, worked with Charlie Parker. Now I was getting the lay of the land.

By the time I was a junior in high school, a small group of friends and I were really trying to learn about this music. I was pretty much only listening to jazz. I found myself particularly drawn to John Coltrane and his famed “Classic Quartet” with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. Of course, there were other musicians, too… Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Ornette Coleman, Dewey Redman, Ben Webster, and too many others to mention. A lot of the music I gravitated toward was created, or deeply rooted in, the 1960s. So many of the major works from this time stemmed from the African American fight for civil rights… Sonny Rollins’ Freedom Suite, Max Roach’s We Insist!, Coltrane’s Alabama and Charles Mingus’ Fables of Faubus and Meditations, to name only a few. The “Free” in “Free Jazz” was often used as a metaphor for the movement, directly connecting the musical innovations of this period with social change.

So here I am in Concord in the 70s and 80s, which was not an environment or an era that embraced multiculturalism. It was a lower-middle class suburb with a lot of resentful white people. I’m not claiming I was relentlessly bullied or harassed, but I encountered my share of ignorance and I certainly wasn’t encouraged to take pride in my racial identity. I think that’s a big reason why I was drawn to this music that expressed struggle, pride and not least of all, creative excellence.

In the midst of all this, I came across an article in Downbeat magazine. It was a page-long writeup highlighting pianist/composer Jon Jang and his Pan-Asian Arkestra. Jon talked about how he felt he could express who he is and his community’s experiences through this music. He was performing Asian American music.

So what is “Asian American music”? When I use that expression, I typically hear back: “why does there have to be Asian American music?” or “isn’t there plenty of music from Asia?” or “do you have to be Asian to play it?” or “what are you talking about? There are plenty of Asians playing classical music” and the one that always gets me shaking my head: “music transcends race.” Yeah, no, maybe, what are you talking about? So let’s explore some ideas around music’s power to inspire, creating a personal, relevant musical voice and body of work, and why it’s important for this music to be out there and recognized.

But back to the main question… what is Asian American music? I think the best place to start is with a recording label that was created to address the historic non-representation of Asian Americans in the music industry that continues to this day. Jon Jang and fellow artist/community leaders Francis Wong formed Asian Improv Records to create a space that supported musicians whose work expressed and reflected a cultural outlook that is uniquely Asian American. Now primarily run out of Chicago by bassist Tatsu Aoki, the label has built a catalog of more than 100 titles, covering a huge range of musical genres – from jazz to electronic music, from traditional forms to hip hop – featuring artists whose work reflects their perspectives of being Asian in America, perhaps through lyrics that address issues of race/racism, perhaps through music inspired by Asian American history and our typically overlooked and undervalued place in the United States.

But I hesitate to mention genre. Too much energy is spent putting labels on music. Attempting to define “Asian American music” as a style or genre misses the point. Artists need to be concerned about the content of their work and conveying that to their audiences. If the content is meaningful and the artistry is in place (yeah, a musician’s gotta be able to play) then the genre will take care of itself. Actually, a new genre will be created, with its own aesthetics and innovative techniques, perhaps in direct conflict with “generally accepted” practices. This is the Asian American music I’m talking about.

I met Francis Wong at a performance of his in San Francisco’s Japantown and soon after that started participating in his Cameron House sessions, where he was a California Arts Council Artist in Residence. It was during this period that Francis encouraged me to pursue and develop my musical efforts and this is actually when I got my recording career started, eventually releasing my debut album, Winds Shifting, on Asian improv Records. I also had been working with flautist Leon Lee, who shared with me a belief that the music we were making was something that needed and deserved a higher profile.

Leon and I felt the music we were making, the music being made by members of our community, by contemporaries, peers, mentors and elders, needed to be presented on a larger stage. The opportunities to present creative music in the Bay Area during the mid-to-late 90s were pretty slim. A handful of galleries, black box theaters and dive bars offered the occasional door gig. Organizations like Jazz In Flight presented solid programming and paid the artists, but they were scaling back their calendar during this time. So Leon and I, with Francis’ support and mentorship, decided to do something about it.

In 2000, we launched the Alliance of Emerging Creative Artists (AECA). The goal of this artists’ cooperative was to raise the profile of Asian American and ethnically diverse creative musicians, produce professional performance opportunities, and present the cross-cultural, multi-ethnic reality of the Bay Area’s new music scene. We did a lot. We learned a lot. Concert production, marketing, writing grants, budgeting, booking, contracts and much more. I look back on what we did, and I’m proud of what we accomplished, presenting both our own work as well as leading figures in the Bay Area and national music scene, like Fred Anderson, Oluyemi and Ijeoma Thomas, Jin Hi Kim, Alan Silva, Miya Masaoka, Hafez Modirzadeh, Ben Goldberg and more. In addition to presenting artists through AECA, I was working on projects, such as composing and performing music for dancer/choreographer Sue Li-Jue’s interpretation of the Chinese immigration experience, Held So Close: Remembering the Poets of Angel Island as well as with performance artist Dohee Lee and scholar Donna Lee Kwon, initiating my collaboration with traditional Korean drumming which continues to this day with artists like So Ra Kim and Suwan Choi. I like to think that we were able to present a vision of our creative community that was self-evident in both its artistic and cultural diversity… a true representation of what the scene looked like.

Also during this period, I was visiting Chicago. My first trip there was in 1997 to perform in the Chicago Asian American Jazz Festival, which was being organized by Tatsu Aoki and Yoko Noge. During that trip, I remember being very impressed with the energy and community investment that was created by the Chicago AAJF. I returned to Chicago a few times more, and saw that there was so much happening, and I wanted to be a part of it. So in 2002, I made the decision to relocate and moved to Chicago.

I got into town in February 2002. The first thing I did was to connect with Tatsu and Yoko, and within the first few days of arriving, I found myself on stage in rooms where I would end up spending a lot of time… the HotHouse and the Velvet Lounge, with wonderful musicians, many of whom I would go on to work with, like saxophonist/clarinetist Mwata Bowden, trumpeter Ameen Muhammad, drummer Avreeayl Ra, and of course, saxophonist Jimmy Ellis, with whom I ended up studying and working with for several years. It was really something to be in this city, in these venues, with these artists, and being immersed in this living history of a dynamic, vibrant cultural scene that owes everything to the African American experience. And the pieces were in place to build a creative culture with the Chicago Asian American community.

I started working closely with Tatsu to build an organization based on the model established by Francis’ Asian Improv aRts in San Francisco, a cultural arts organization dedicated to the presentation of Asian American creative expression. For those of you who have started an organization, you know what’s involved… getting all the legal and financial documentation in order, developing organizational mission, vision and goals, organizing archival materials and work samples and so on. We spent a lot of late nights in that storefront space of Tatsu’s, pulling all this information together and preparing those first few grant proposals requesting funding to launch the organization and deliver arts programs. We were successful, but like I said, the pieces were in place. Our initial success with growing this organization – which would ultimately become Asian Improv aRts Midwest – was due to the artistic excellence that was being presented through the Chicago Asian American Jazz Festival. Not to suggest that there weren’t individual Asian American artists in Chicago doing excellent work, but the CAAJF was an example of an organized and consistent effort that demonstrated a community-wide capacity to produce and support creative excellence (remember that I said you gotta be able to play).

Tsukasa Taiko. Photo by Asian Improv aRts MidWest.

One of the key developments of AIRMW was when Tatsu brought the taiko ensemble he had been working with into AIRMW, presenting it as a program of the organization. Tsukasa Taiko, founded by Hide Yoshihashi, became an important component of AIRMW, and just like that, AIRMW was the leading presenter of both traditional Asian music and progressive contemporary Asian American music in the midwest. Actively working in both the new music scene of Chicago as well as with Tsukasa contributed to a new conception of how the arts relate to community, the community’s experiences, and how these experiences feedback to inform the arts. I saw firsthand how young people in particular engaged with taiko, and what a powerful vehicle the arts are to bring community together, learn and embrace one’s own distinct and notable cultural heritage, and ultimately, using this cultural perspective to contribute to the larger creative landscape.

Now more than ever, it is essential to understand that creation is intrinsically tied to culture and heritage of the creator. Our community needs to make these statements, especially in the current climate of hate and xenophobia fueled by the Trump regime. He and his accessories did not create the anti-Asian environment that has always existed in this country to one degree or another, but their rhetoric and actions have stirred it up to a new level, signified by the rise in violence against Asian Americans during the Covid Pandemic and the mass murder in Atlanta on March 16, 2021. The Atlanta tragedy brought the issue of anti-Asian hate and violence to the forefront of national discussion, if but for a moment. The persistent belief that Asian Americans are somehow less significant, that our experiences are less meaningful, that we are expendable is clearly still held. So what do we do? Why am I writing about Asian American music? Because music is deeply tied to our innate power. It has always been closely associated with social movements. Music does not just reflect the social climate, but it can raise awareness and drive change. It can be a microcosm for the society we envision – one that embraces community, legacy, heritage, self-determination, leadership and nurturing the future. Our music, our art, our creation help to shape our future. Shouldn’t we be in it?

jeff chan big fUn philharmonic at HotHouse. Photo by Chien-An Yuan.

Author’s Bio: Multi-instrumentalist/composer Jeff Chan lives in Chicago where he works to build understanding of the Asian American experience through the cultural arts. His work is represented on more than a dozen recordings as a leader, composer, sideman and producer. His latest album, Perspectives (Asian Improv Records 0111), featuring Vijay Anderson and Tatsu Aoki, will be released on June 14, 2021. Perspectives and his other titles on Asian Improv Records can streamed/downloaded at Bandcamp and CDs can be found at Amazon. Follow him on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram.

Cover Photo:

Jeff Chan. Photo by David Huang.


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