The Independent Ear

Chris Grasso answers the call for live music

DMV-based pianist Chris Grasso has carved out a niche that certainly qualifies him for the pantheon of great jazz vocal piano accompanists.  That admirable coterie includes a distinguished list of piano accompanists who were and are particularly adept at providing vocalists with the kind of pianistic care and feeding that is by equal turns comforting and challenging.

That list of great vocal pianist accompanists certainly includes artists like Bobby Tucker (Billie Holiday), Tommy Flanagan (Ella Fitzgerald), Norman Simmons, Jimmy Jones, Ronell Bright, Ellis Larkins, Jimmy Rowles, Lou Levy, Bill Charlap (Tony Bennett), and other notable vocal specialists.

For the 2019 DC JazzFest – which now seems like a lifetime ago, what with pandemic restrictions in 2020 and our impending 9-month prohibitions of concert performances for audiences – we mounted an evening in tribute to Quincy Jones and Roy Hargrove.  Opening that evening was the distinguished vocalist Sharon Clarke with the Chris Grasso Trio.  That evening also featured an array of distinguished special guest soloists, including Cassandra Wilson,  Joshua Redman and Kenny Garrett – each expertly accompanied by the Chris Grasso Trio, which added immeasurably to the great success of that Kennedy Center evening.

Fortunately for the DMV community, Chris Grass has answered the pandemic era call for fresh musical performances with a series of live streams from Blue House Studio in Kensington, MD.  Blue House, site of several of our virtual DC JazzFest 2020 performances last September, has proven itself a particularly adept space for streaming performances and Chris Grasso has seized that locale for his ongoing series.  Next up for the series is Billie Holiday Competition winner Sara Jones with the Chris Grasso Trio on Friday, December 4.  Clearly some questions were in order for Chris Grasso.

When did you begin your Covid-era performance series at Blue House, and what was your original motivation?

Our first performance was in March.  It was actually a replacement for a live show.  I had just started a new ticketed monthly series at Mr. Henry’s in February.  Our first night, which featured Lena Seikaly, sold out.  It was such a great audience – really a listening crowd, and not an empty seat in the house.  Sharón Clark was the next featured performer, scheduled for March 20, and also sold out in advance.  But the week before the show, the COVID shutdowns hit, and Mr. Henry’s had to close.  I got in touch with Jeff Gruber at Blue House and we moved the show to his studio.  Jeff and I have known each other and worked on projects over the years.  I was really fortunate to know someone with his skills, and a beautiful studio, who was available and willing to help make it happen.  Then, when we saw the response from the audience, it was pretty overwhelming.

 

How have you gone about publicizing these performances, and what has been the streaming audience response to these performances?

Over the years, I’ve developed an e-mail list that’s grown to a decent size.  Of course, social media is essential as well.  I also try to get the shows listed on CapitalBop, JazzNearYou and other jazz listings and social media pages, including those done by Bertrand Uberall and Maryam Balbed. Promotion is definitely a big part of the work.

Do you monetize these streaming performances?  If not, how is this series supported?

Yes, since the beginning, we’ve been requesting contributions from viewers, and that’s actually been successful.  I think there’s something of a debate about the best way to handle streaming concerts.  One school of thought is making payment mandatory – you send money, then you get a link to the show.  I definitely understand that approach, and it’s obviously more like the way things would work in the analog world.  The challenge with that is you miss part of the benefit of social media.  Many people don’t plan or like to commit ahead of time, but if they’re scrolling through Facebook and see that a show is about to start, or even has already started, they may hop on and watch.  Very often, they’ll also contribute.

You’ve carved out a real niche for yourself as a sensitive vocal accompanist.  Has that been your intention all along, or did other circumstances contribute to your excelling at that important role?

I’d like to say that was by design, but it really was not.  I’ve always loved great singers, but I didn’t really start to work with vocalists regularly until I began performing and booking the jazz at the Henley Park Hotel.  We started the program with strictly instrumental groups, but it pretty quickly became apparent that the management wanted vocalists, so we switched the focus.  Sharón Clark and Dick Smith became featured artists, and then we expanded to lots of other great singers, including Felicia Carter, Paige Wroble and more.  Then, when I moved the program to the Mandarin Oriental, singers were really the draw, and that’s when I started working with Lena Seikaly, Sara Jones, Alison Crockett, Julian Hipkins and others.  We also had a guest artist program where I got to bring in people like ThimNicki Parrott, Alan Harris, Denise Thimes, Denise King, Becky Kilgore, Byron Stripling, Annie Sellick and Deborah Brown.  I was really lucky to get that opportunity.

How has your Blue House series of streaming performances evolved thus far?

Well, like everyone, we were really flying blind in the beginning.  We had no idea whether people would tune in, and whether they would support it financially.  After the first show in March, we realized there was a need for this kind of thing.  But then, of course, lots of other streaming music started happening, so there’s a lot more competition.  But, knock on wood, we seem to have developed something that people like and that, I hope, they’ll continue to support.

What’s upcoming for your Blue House series, and do you view this as a temporary pursuit or have you extended your view towards this series being ongoing despite our collective desire to return to “live” performances before audiences?

Our next show on Friday, December 4 features Sara Jones, a really wonderful vocalist who should be better known. Sharón Clark will be back in January, and I’m hoping to have Paige Wroble in for her first time in February.  We had Dick Smith for a show over the summer, and I’d really like to have him back again if he’s up for it.  I’d also love to start bringing people in from out of town if and when travel is a little easier.

Do you view this kind of streaming “live” performance as a wave of the future, or is this purely a temporary response to the pandemic?

There is nothing I would rather do than go back to performing live in a room packed full of people.  I was really excited about the series at Mr. Henry’s because it was the first time I had the chance to do a recurring, ticketed performance series.  As wonderful as they were, all the other regular venues I’ve done have been non-ticketed, and as everyone knows, that’s a crap shoot as far as audiences go.  One night can be a dream, and the next night it can be dozens of drunk people yelling all night.  That’s one thing you never have to deal with during a live stream, at least.

I suspect live streaming will be with us for a while, but it’s so hard to say.  But as long as it is, I’m going to try to make it the most satisfying musical experience I can, both for the audience and the musicians.

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Share your love of jazz


How I Fell in Love With Jazz Video Contest
presented by Savage Ticket

Dear Jazz Lovers,

How did you fall in love with Jazz? Was it a song? An artist? An instrument? How did your life change? How did your life grow fuller? Tell us all about it in 60 seconds or less and you could win up to $2500!

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As another week sets on the life of our submission and voting period, we want to make you aware of a few details.

  • VOTE VOTE VOTE We’ve extended the voting deadline to November 28th, so make sure you use all the time to get your favorite video at the top of the list by sending your friends, family, and all the other people who follow you on social media the link to our contest page. Remember, you can vote up to 5 times per day.

  • WE WILL SHARE THE CONTEST RESULTS ON OUR SOCIAL MEDIA If you’d like to be the first to know the prize winners, follow us on all major social platforms. And not only will you be able to keep up with the contest, you’ll be the first to see the events and projects to come!
  • MANY EXCITING THINGS ARE UNDERWAY Savage Ticket is all about creating innovative opportunities for artists to thrive, which means more amazing content for you. Very soon, we will unveil an exclusive virtual concert series, a jazz music and poetry series, an much, much more. Click those follow buttons on our social media to stay in-the-know!

It is our hope that not only will you be able to win some great prizes, but that you can add to the legacy and archive of the incredible genre of Jazz music. 

Play on,

The Savage Ticket Team

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CONTEST GUIDELINES

Check out some of the competition:

BB3: “How I Fell in Love With Jazz”

How Verity Fell in Love With Jazz

David – My Favorite Things

Don’t forget, your video needs to meet these requirements*:

  • Must be 18 years of age or older and a resident of USA, Canada (excl. Quebec), or the UK
  • Must include “how you fell in love with Jazz”
  • Should include how your love for Jazz has evolved (if applicable)
  • Must include your favorite jazz genre/musician/band/song/album, etc. and what makes that choice special for you
  • Maximum video length should be no longer than 60 seconds
  • File size no larger than 300 MB
  • Must be in English
  • Must enter before or on November 21st @ 11:59 PM EST

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Catching up with writer Angelika Beener

Back when we began our series of dialogues with Black jazz and music journalists & critics in the Independent Ear one of the newer breed of writers who have to a large extent operated in the still relatively new online media stream was Brooklyn-based writer Angelika Beener. In Angelika’s case the chief instrument conveying her take on modern music was her online Alternate Takes.

I recall our interview encounter one afternoon at a coffee shop in her Fort Greene neighborhood and how impressed I was at her perspectives on music, and how she skillfully engaged social justice & political responsibilities matters into her sense of the music.  I was also delighted to learn her jazz lineage, as daughter of the late trumpeter Oliver Beener, and as the niece of Nellie and the great Thelonious Monk.

As Angelika continued our dialogue I recognized immediately that this was a centered young woman with a definite writing agenda and a fresh point of view on jazz music. Her writing reflected the perspectives of someone who had grown up with hip hop as another vivid point of musical reference and influence. 

As those Ain’t But a Few of Us dialogues and interviews slowly make their way up my publisher’s pipeline to book form, I thought it was past time to catch up with Angelika Beener’s current writing pursuits.   

Angelika Beener

What are you up to these days with your writing?

These days, I’m working on relaunching my website, Kultured Child. A lot has happened in my life, personally and professionally since I launched Alternate Takes in 2011. I launched kulturedchild.com in 2017 to reflect how motherhood and parenting was affecting my writing, particularly the content and how music was becoming such a special element in my relationship with my son. The music was still central to my writing, but events of the world were deeply influential as well. Trayvon Martin was killed and Black Lives Matter was consequently launched, less than a year after I started Alternate Takes. My music writing is already scribed through a social and political lens, but it became increasingly important for me to add parenting to that lens, and most importantly, the influence that my son’s own thoughts and ideas about the world were having on me as a writer.

Given your choice, would you prefer more issue-oriented journalism or the tried & true personality/record-driven proclivities of the mainstream music prints?

This is a great question, and I’d have to say that it depends on who’s writing. With “issue-oriented” journalism that may center on issues of race, gender, and equity, I think it’s very important that the writer have an intimate, personal understanding of those issues.

Without an actual internal place to reference and tap into as a writer, I find that this kind of storytelling can feel empty, forced and can actually be a triggering interview process for the artist and triggering for certain readers, as well. Which really brings me to the impetus of my passion for writing about this music. There was, and there remains a shameful gate keeping around jazz journalism that is largely exclusionary toward black, brown and queer women. And when we are invited to participate in our own historical narratives, we are often met with patronizing – even sabotaging – experiences from white, male editors.

So I say that as long as writers come from a place of familiarity of the plights the artists’ experience, this can produce genuinely meaningful writing and can really give honor to the artists’ dimensionality and the music that comes through those experiences. I have had the honor of writing several pieces about the particular times we are living in and I have also turned down invitations to write about these times. My decision depends on my understanding of the sincerity and position of the hiring editor and the track record of the publication. Writing about these times is something I approach with my whole being. Our subjugation is not to be exploited because it happens to be trending. These stories should always be told, and it shouldn’t have taken a public lynching on May 25, 2020 for folks to finally decide that our plight is cover story worthy.

Is online journalism your current medium of choice?

As a writer, I’m writing almost exclusively for digital/online outlets. But I still get The New York Times delivered to my doorstep. I’ll probably never own a kindle or read an audiobook, unless it’s for a specific reason (Laurence Fishburne narrating The Autobiography of Malcolm X, for instance). I’m old school in that way. One of my favorite places to be is in my local bookstore, or any bookstore, for that matter.

Besides writing, what are your other interests in terms of immersing yourself in this music we call jazz?

I have been DJing for about six years, and then went to Scratch Academy to really hone my craft. After graduating in 2017, I started doing a lot of gigging. I’ve DJ’ed a few times for Jazz at Lincoln Center, which was really exciting because there really is a place for the DJ in jazz institutions and I’m grateful that they acknowledge that in having me DJ for them. Most of the gigs I’ve done, I have been fortunate to be able to spin the kind of music that I like, rather than cater to a particular audience. They hire me because they like what I bring to the table and that leaves me optimistic about the future of the DJ and jazz. There is definitely an audience outside of the live music audience that also wants to engage with the music. I also co-produced a documentary on Weldon Irvine, titled Digging For Weldon Irvine, and as the title would suggest, it really required a deep dive into the music and beyond. A very deep project.

Talk about some of the more intriguing and rewarding jazz recordings you’ve immersed yourself in during these pandemic times.

During the pandemic I have been revisiting a lot of vinyl that I already own. My son has gotten into music production and sampling, so it has caused me to get involved in the process. We pull records together that he or I think may be interesting for him to discover, and that’s been really rewarding. In addition to that, some albums that have stayed in rotation during the pandemic are Look to the Rainbow (1977) from Al Jarreau. The Genius of Ray Charles (1959) from Brother Ray is another one because it is entirely significant of my childhood, and I think that during these uncertain times, it’s been really important for me to find ways to anchor myself via the things that feel foundational and solid. Lots of Stevie Wonder as well: In Square Circle (1985), Songs in the Key of Life (1976), Talking Book (1972), and The Woman In Red (1984), in particular. Stevie is my… everything place! I am about to immerse myself in this Palo Alto album from Thelonious Monk, too. I’m really excited to do a deep dive on it.

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The arrival of Artemis

One of the best evenings I spent last January at the annual Winterjazzfest was with the superb new all-woman ensemble known as Artemis.  This band of impressively accomplished women bandleaders includes pianist Renee Rosnes, vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant, clarinetist & saxophonist Anat Cohen, tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, bassist Noriko Ueda, and the unceasingly crafty drummer Allison Miller.  Gender celebration aside, it simply doesn’t get any better than that lineup!

Late September included the Blue Note Records release of Artemis’ eponymously titled debut recording as a band.  Experiencing this band in performance or sampling their new record one never gets any sense of manifesto, or that this band is some direct response to our about-time “Me too” movement of social justice for women in the workplace and elsewhere.  To get best sense of the origins and mission of Artemis, I recently posed some questions to the band’s exceptional pianist Renee Rosnes, a woman whose personal warmth always resonates at the keyboard.

What was the genesis of this band Artemis, and how did you arrive at the name?

In 2016, a French promoter asked if I would be interested in helping him assemble and lead a band to perform two concerts––at the Paris Philharmonie and the Luxembourg Philharmonie––in celebration of International Women’s Day. I chose musicians that I admired and respected, most of whom I already had a relationship with. It included five of the members of what is now ARTEMIS. Those initial concerts were very successful and so there was a desire to do more together.

During the summer of 2017 the band, which now included drummer Allison Miller and bassist Noriko Ueda, made a 14-city tour of European Jazz Festivals. We quickly realized that we had something special: a natural, organic chemistry, which our audiences took note of too. It was at the conclusion of the tour that we decided to continue to play together and make it official by branding the band with a name. Since then, ARTEMIS has headlined at some of the country’s top venues including the Newport Jazz Festival, the Tisch Center for the Arts at 92Y, and Carnegie Hall. The band has been featured in Vanity Fair, and on the cover of the September issue of DownBeat magazine.

As we searched for a name that illuminated the band’s sound and energy, Ingrid began to look at her ancestral Viking history, but couldn’t identify female leaders with any “redeeming qualities.” She then turned to Greek mythology and was struck by the goddess Artemis. The daughter of Zeus and Leto,  Artemis is described as the Goddess of the Hunt, of the Wild and of the Moon. She is a torch bringer, an explorer and a protector of children. In myths and ancient poems, Artemis was also described as a lover of music and dance. Ingrid found these various character traits of the goddess to fit the band’s spirit, and we all agreed.

Do you see this as an ongoing ensemble, or a special project assembled for this moment and this recording date?

We see ARTEMIS as an ongoing ensemble, and imagine it will continue to grow and become more important as time goes on.

 

Would you say this band Artemis is a reflection of our obvious need to better and more broadly recognize the wealth of women playing this music?

Absolutely. It’s true that ARTEMIS is made up of several female instrumentalists who are important musicians of our day, but there are many more excellent, up-and-coming women on the scene that are in need of performance opportunities and significant recognition. The scene is very different now than it was 30 or 40 years ago, but we still have a ways to go. Presenters, club owners, promoters, DJs, jazz journalism and all types of social media can all play a role in bringing the talents of visionary female instrumentalists to the public’s awareness. Wayne Shorter once told me, “Music transcends gender.” It’s time that should become a reality.

Is it your hope that this band will be an inspiration to young women studying music?

In the short while the band has been together, it is palpable that we are inspirational to young female and male players studying jazz. We have especially noticed this while conducting university workshops and master classes during our travels. Young jazz majors are generally thrilled to see and hear a band of virtuosic women creating compelling and powerful music.

You’ve contributed your original tune “Big Top” to this new release, which is otherwise a mix of originals and a few more widely known pieces.  How did the band determine your repertoire?

I invited each member of ARTEMIS to contribute either an original composition or an arrangement for our debut recording. It was important to me—and all of us—that each member’s individual voice and musical point of view be heard. In live performances, we feature the same type of diverse program, and the repertoire will continue to develop as time goes on. With regards to the inclusion of Lee Morgan‘s The Sidewinder, I thought it would be great to reimagine a Blue Note classic to include on the album.

What’s next for Artemis?

The band is thrilled that our Blue Note recording is finally out for everyone to enjoy. It’s unfortunate that due to Covid, we can’t support it with live performances, but as soon as we can, we will. We lost a lot of work––both national and international––during this time period, but expect that it will be rebooked when possible. Music is a healing force, and we need it more than ever during these distressing and scary times.

www.artemisband.com

“A killer line-up of players, composers and performers who hail from all over the world… they all converge on this extremely cosmopolitan, sleek, rhythm-forward, modern sound.” – NPR

“Collectively, the sheer force of the group’s ability is staggering!” – DownBeat

“Together they revealed a shared intensity and suggested something alluring and new. The group’s debut release, ‘ARTEMIS’ (Blue Note), delivers on that promise… The real headline here is this ensemble’s cohesion, its ability to move gracefully through various styles and moods and to sound, by turns, authoritative and playful, locked-in or loose-limbed. In the tradition of drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, ARTEMIS crafts an identifiable band sound rooted in sturdy yet flexible rhythms… ARTEMIS means to upend expectations, gently and yet with force. Its music comes off like a nuanced argument for a fresh point of view.” – Wall Street Journal

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Pianist Jon Jang’s latest justice project

Pianist-composer-bandleader Jon Jang is no newcomer to social justice issues, he’s taken up the mantle of human rights through his music, personal outlook & attitude, and in action for many seasons. Jon’s latest recording is certainly in the moment, exploring the historic interconnections and the current burning need for alliances between the African American and Asian American communities, titled The Pledge of Black/Asian Allegiance. Clearly some questions were in order for this deeply thoughtful, Bay Area-based artist.

What is your sense of the “Black Asian Allegiance” here in the 21st Century?
Thank you for having me Willard. As Malcolm X once said, “If you were born black, you were born in jail.” Black people in America have been enslaved 250 years and longer than they have been free. Black people built this country and it’s all in the poem, Why is We Americans? by Amiri Baraka.

Black people in America have been at the forefront in the struggle against systemic racism. From Frederick Douglass fighting against Chinese exclusion and fighting for Chinese immigrant rights to become US citizens to the Congressional Black Caucus standing first in line to support redress and reparations for Japanese Americans, black leaders have given strong ally-ship to Asian Americans.

How can Asian Americans become real allies to African Americans? First, we have to open up conversations and share each of our stories and histories.

Because Asian immigrant families have moved into black communities, there are tensions in the communities because both communities lack an understanding of each other’s history. There is also the problem of erasure. When I spoke at an African American art course at a university on the East Coast a few years ago, none of the black students knew anything about Nat Turner. I had a Chinese American Stanford University student who was born in the Philippines and didn’t know about the history of the Chinese workers who built the first transcontinental railroad hired by Stanford nor about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first legislation to ban Chinese immigrants solely on the basis of race.

During the 1970s, Asian Americans primarily Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans, Pilipino Americans and Korean Americans, developed a political consciousness inspired by the struggles of the Black Liberation Movement and the Civil Rights Movement which led to the birth of the Asian American Movement in solidarity with black, brown and red peoples.

Since the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the United States has become more complicated because there is a more diverse population. Added to the Asian American four groups that I mentioned earlier, now we have Southeast Asians and South Asians and within those groupings there are sub groupings such as Vietnamese, Cambodian, Burmese. There are also class differences among and within these groups

Now that I am considered an elder OG (Original Gangsta) by Generation Y and Z Asian American activists, the younger generations face different circumstances and challenges. Their grandparents and parents may be immigrants who live in the same space. Their parents were taught, if taught at all, the American history from a white perspective and buy into the American Dream myth of equal opportunity. Young activist peers may also buy into that as well. There are Asian Americans who buy into the Model Minority myth created by White America to invalidate systemic racism of black and Latinx peoples.

About twenty years ago, Professor Claire Jean Kim developed the racial triangulation theory, which is based on the idea that race is a multidimensional field of positions that merges relative value and civic inclusion. The first example of racial triangulation occurred when Chinese were imported to avoid hiring newly freed blacks in the Reconstruction era. White Supremacist America applied the Model Minority trick when they praised Chinese immigrants for their supposed work ethic in contrast to white America’s stereotyping black people as lazy. I don’t remember a children’s song about the Chinese building the railroad, but I certainly remember John Henry.

In this moment, it is imperative that Asian Americans support H.R. 40 The Commission to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African American Act. Asian Americans must also support defunding the police to re-allocate funding and resources into providing free healthcare to black people, especially in the research and treatment of diabetes. Remember Eric Dolphy!

One of the lessons I learned from my mentors Wendell Logan and Bernice Johnson Reagon is that building Black Asian solidarity or any kind of solidarity between two or more distinctly different races of people takes time, patience, trust, troubled love and the ability to withstand discomfort. Solidarity doesn’t magically happen like in that song that I detest called We Are the World


You open the album with the piece “Yuri Kochiyama, Malcolm X!” Talk about the correlation of those two figures.
Yuri Kochiyama, a few years older than Malcolm X, invited Malcolm to her family apartment located in Harlem in October 1963. Yuri admired Malcolm from afar and was excited that he consented to her invitation. Yuri, her husband Bill and their six children had planned a gathering of Hibakusha women, survivors of the Atomic bomb in Hiroshima-Nagasaki who were writing about stories about their struggle and survival. Malcolm was a black revolutionary nationalist who was evolving into a black revolutionary internationalist. He spoke eloquently about Chinese American transnational history. Yuri, an integrationist, later evolved into a revolutionary internationalist and joined Malcolm’s Organization of Afro-American Unity as one of the few Asian American activists. Yuri Kochiyama made history. This diminutive Nisei (second generation Japanese American) woman was the nail that sticks up! To place that moment in its proper context, this came at a time before the birth of the term Asian American by UC Berkeley Asian American student activists and before the birth of the Asian American Movement in 1969. For the most part, Asian Americans were categorized as “Other” and often derisively called Orientals by white America.

After Malcolm X was assassinated in February 1965, I think Malcolm planted the seeds and transmitted his legacy to Yuri, as well as others. In my opinion as an artist/activist during the 1980s, Yuri Kochiyama carried Malcolm’s legacy through the lens of black revolutionary internationalism. It wasn’t so much of an identity thing for Yuri. She wasn’t trying to be black. Yuri was carrying part of the work envisioned by Malcolm X. In the composition, the 9 pitch melody performed by the saxophone and trombone is based on the 9 syllables of Yuri and Malcolm’s names.

Please illuminate your thinking as you wrote the 8 thematic originals you contributed to this recording.
The recording opens with two excerpts from my newly commissioned work, The Pledge of Black Asian Allegiance, Yuri Kochiyama, Malcolm X is a hybrid of Soran Bushi, the Japanese fishermen’s song from Hokkaido, and Bob Marley and Peter Tosh’s Get Up! Stand Up! I was inspired by Billy Harper’s unique rendering of Soran Bushi, on The Awakening the live recording of the Billy Harper Quintet in Paris in 1979, as well as Hitomi Oba’s unique rendition. 1973 was the pivotal year that I made the crucial decision to pursue music at the late age of 19 through Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Bruce Lee, McCoy Tyner and Bob Marley.

The second excerpt, The Nail That Sticks Up!, is dedicated to Yuri. It is inspired by Max Roach’s The Dream where Max performs a two part invention with the pre-recorded, I Have a Dream speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington in August 1963. I took a pre-recorded speech by Yuri Kochiyama about the history of black leaders supporting Asian Americans

Yank Sing Work Song is dedicated to the Yank Sing Restaurant workers, victims of wage theft and management abuse who won a 4 million dollar settlement. Min Xiao Fen, the virtuoso pipa (Chinese lute) performer, opens with a Cantonese (southern Chinese) melody while the double bass is playing a figure which is a hybrid of slow black funk and Cantonese. Inspired by Miles Davis Bitches Brew recording, the rhythm section shifts to a faster tempo.

Jasmine Among the Magnolias is based on Beautiful Jasmine Flowers (Mo Li Hu), the first Chinese folk song brought over to the United States in 1800. Our unique treatment is a hybrid of this popular Chinese song within a contemporary black gospel ballad context. The work pays tribute to Frederick Douglass and Senator Blanche Kelson Bruce who fought for Chinese immigrant rights to become US citizens.

Flower Drum Song (Fengyang Hua Gu) has been considered among the most well-known Chinese traditional songs. Flower Drum Song originated from the Anhui Province, an area in east-central China known for its long history of suffering of poverty and famine during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.). The Flower Drum Song featured a husband and wife duo that “begged” and earned money by performing the Flower Drum Song and dance. The wife performed also on a small “flower” drum and the husband on gong. Similar to the black tradition of the “dozens,” the second part of the song featured a playful exchange of insults. Here is an example of the dozens in the Flower Drum Song, “My wife is ugly because she has big feet.” Here is an example of the dozens in the black tradition, “Your mama’s feet so big, she needs to wear a license plate.”

The next three works are part of a suite that I composed entitled, Can’t Stop Cryin’ for America: Black Lives Matter! commissioned by the San Francisco Arts Commission. The work is a collaboration with poet performer Dr. Amanda Kemp. The first piece, Hands Up! Don’t Shoot! pays homage to Michael Brown. The opening 14 note phrased is based on the 14 syllable phrase, “Hands up! Don’t shoot! I want to live! Hands up! Don’t shoot!

The second piece, More Motherless Children, pays homage to the nine black victims at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. I selected the black spiritual, Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, because six of the victims were mothers and grandmothers. Max Roach and Wendell Logan, who were two of my mentors, passed on this tradition to me. Max Roach recorded Motherless Child dedicated to Marcus Garvey on Max Roach’s recording, Lift Every Voice and Sing. When White American musicologist George Pullen Jackson stated that black spirituals were based on white hymns, Dr. Logan argued with the response, Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child could not and did not come from a white hymn.

The third and final piece of Can’t Stop Cryin’ for America: Black Lives Matter! is entitled Why Did They Have to Shoot Him So Many Times? This work pays homage to Mario Woods, the 26 year black man who was shot twenty times and killed execution style by four San Francisco police officers. None of them were punished. During the process of composing Can’t Stop Cryin’ for America: Black Lives Matter!, there were more parts and the music sounded different. There was a part about Eric Garner and Laquan McDonald. But something happened. Poet performer Dr. Amanda Kemp, who has two black sons in their twenties, and I became depressed as we developed the work. Why Did They Have to Shoot Him So Many Times? changed from a piece about Mario Woods to a roll call and meditation of black victims legally lynched by the police.

Tell us about the musicians you chose to record this work.
First, multiple percussionist Deszon Claiborne and double bassist Gary Brown have performed in my ensembles for over a decade. I always search first for a rhythm section. In the book, Notes and Tones: Musician to Musician Interviews by drummer Art Taylor, Miles Davis was asked the question, “How do you go about picking a drummer for your band?” Miles replied, “First I look at my ding!” Miles explained the importance of a drummer’s reaction skill with what’s going on with the phrasing similar to the metaphor of a boxer. When Deszon and Gary perform the music, they performed with an attitude.

Saxophonist/composer Hitomi Oba and trombonist/composer Nick DePinna represent the latest group of musicians who have studied with my dear friend and collaborator James Newton. With James and me, it has been an unbroken thread where musicians who have studied with him such as Lenon Honor, Marcus Shelby, Hitomi and Nick have collaborated with me.

Jon & frequent collaborator flutist-composer James Newton

I saw a YouTube clip of Hitomi performing when she was in high school. Damn, she had a unique sound. She didn’t sound like what a jazz saxophonist should sound like. But she did. Maxine Hong Kingston taught me, “Learn to make your mind large, as large as the universe so there is room for paradox.”

I love performing with David Murray because he has such an original, honest sound. But that doesn’t mean he is not schooled in the tradition. I saw him give a lecture at the San Francisco Art Institute and he listed on the blackboard thirty important saxophonists such as Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Sidney Bechet and Paul Gonsalves. David lectured and demonstrated their sonic contributions on his saxophone.

Now back to Hitomi, as well as Nick DePinna. Both of them have a very broad vision and their musicianship is on a very high level. Most important they have an attitude to advance the music driven by whatever it takes. I heard a work composed by Nick that was technically difficult. But it wasn’t technically difficult for the sake of being technically difficult. Like in many of James Newton’s works, it is about making an honest and truthful musical statement. “What can replace Opus?”

What was your sense of closing this album with “Butterfly Lovers Song” followed by the familiar theme “You’ll Never Walk Alone?”

During the 1980s, my unique rendering of the Butterfly Lovers Song was the outcome of my artist activist connections with various mass movement work such as the Jesse Jackson Presidential Campaign and the Rainbow Coalition, as well as the mass movement work in the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA). As a result, the Butterfly Lovers Song became a hybrid and merger of two different music traditions: black music and Chinese music.

Jesse Jackson was the first Presidential candidate to speak in San Francisco Chinatown. Jesse Jackson spoke on many occasions at Portsmouth Square. Jesse Jackson also addressed Asian American issues such as the Justice for Vincent Chin campaign and the anti-immigrant Simpson-Mazzoli Act. Whenever there was a space with a piano, Francis Wong and I would perform Country Preacher, which was the anthem for Reverend Jackson that was recorded live by the Cannonball Adderley Quintet in 1969 at an Operation Breadbasket event in Chicago hosted by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

In the Fall of 1988, the Chinese Progressive Association was planning to celebrate our 16th anniversary at the New Asia Restaurant in San Francisco Chinatown. Chinese Progressive Association director Mabel Teng requested that I learn to perform the Butterfly Lovers Song for the Chinese immigrant audience. Because I never heard of the song, I asked Mabel if she could give a recording of it. She didn’t have a recording

I was forced to haphazardly comb the merchant stores on Grant Avenue, the main street in San Francisco Chinatown in search of a cassette tape recording of the Butterfly Lovers Song. Because I did not speak Cantonese, the merchants could not understand what I was looking for. I tried flapping my arms like Morris Day and The Time performing The Bird to illustrate the butterfly flutter. Unfortunately, my bird flapping was too good as the merchant showed me a tape cassette recording cover of birds flying. A day before the banquet, a CPA member had a vinyl recording of the Butterfly Lovers Song to lend to me. By listening to the recording, I learned the song overnight.

After I performed the Butterfly Lovers Song at the New Asia Restaurant, I could hear the waiters singing the melody. I also wrote an arrangement of the Butterfly Lovers Song for all of my ensembles that merges the Butterfly Lovers Song with Jesse Jackson’s anthem, Country Preacher.

In both the legend about the Butterfly Lovers Song, there is a strong narrative about Chinese women whose acts of resistance defy Chinese patriarchal feudalism. In the legend part which dates back to the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317 AD -420 AD), a young woman disguises herself as a man as an act of resistance to the patriarchal feudal practice that only men could study in schools. The young woman disguised as a man meets a young man and he quickly learns that she is a woman and they both fall in love. However, because of the arranged marriage custom, they were forced to separate. The young man dies of a broken heart. As an act of resistance of the feudal practice of the arranged marriage custom, the woman goes to the grave site and leaps in where they reincarnate as butterflies. This is not only an act of symbolic transformation but also freedom. It was appropriate to feature Hitomi Oba, an Asian American woman saxophonist who display her creativity informed by the nuanced “pipa” gestures she heard performing with pipa virtuoso Min Xiao Fen.

I chose to close with the Butterfly Lovers Song for two reasons: 1) The song expresses the symbolic transformation of the tensions of Black American communities and Asian American communities into solidarity. 2) I wanted my new works to be heard first particular to my loyal listeners who have heard the seven different recorded versions by different ensembles! (Laughter)

I also ended with You’ll Never Walk Alone for two reasons: 1) Because it was a solo piano performance, I wanted to separate from the Jon Jangtet repertory. 2) Because my mon passed away three years ago, I performed her favorite piece at her Celebration of Life. This was my musical farewell/send off to her, my dad, my grandparents and my ancestors

What is your sense of alliance building between African Americans and Asian Americans -and what positive alliances are you seeing and experiencing – in these troubled times?

It has existed and is well documented in the Asian Improv Nation family during the past four decades. I have performed and recorded with James Newton, David Murray and Max Roach. Francis Wong recorded with John Tchicai and recently with Bobby Bradford, William Roper and Ari Brown. In Chicago, Francis and Tatsu Aoki share a long history of collaboration with Mwata Bowden, Ed Wilkerson and other black and Asian American artists. Continuing with the Black Asian Chicago California collaboration, the late Los Angeles based pianist/shamisen performer/ composer Glenn Horiuchi (1955-2000) recorded with Joseph Jarman and performed with Wadada Leo Smith.

The next generation of Asian American composer-improvisors made an impact when they moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to New York. I attended a concert where Vijay Iyer, whose first two recordings were on Asian Improv Records, performed a work to pay tribute to Eric Garner. Vijay has also collaborated with the most important black artists of our time such as George Lewis, Wadada Leo Smith, and Steve Coleman. One of the strongest interpretations of Thelonious Monk’s music was recorded by Miya Masaoka in collaboration with Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille. Jen Shyu recently performed an homage to Breonna Taylor

As far as positive alliances today in these troubled times in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Chinese Progressive Association, a grass roots multigenerational organization based in Chinatown which was founded in 1972, has been a longtime ally of black struggles from the Jesse Jackson Presidential Campaigns during the 1980s to Black Lives Matter the past few years. Advancing Justice -Asian Law Caucus is an important mainstream organization where Audee Holman Kochiyama, one of Yuri-Kochiyam’s daughters, is on the staff. #Asians4BlackLives, a Pan Asian organization, represents one of the important young voices in the moment and for the future.

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