See our Photo of the Week (and archive of more)

Art Changes
Opinion Advertize Permission
To be notified of new articles Survey Store About Us
A Conversation with
Jon Jang and Francis Wong

10th Anniversary of Asian Improv

Part 2 - Cultural Synthesis: A Global International Context

San Francisco, California

Francis Wong, Jon JangThis is part two of an in-depth conversation with composers / musicians Jon Jang and Francis Wong. It marks the 10th anniversary of the founding of the independent recording label Asian Improv. At the time of this interview, Asian Improv had issued over thirty recordings by such artists as Francis Wong, Jon Jang, Glenn Horiuchi, Miya Masaoka, Jeff Song, Mark Izu, Genny Lim, and many others. The interview is in five parts and covers a wide scope of topics ranging from the reasons why these composers started their own recording label; how that label has grown; how Asian Improv related to the Asian American Consciousness Movement; multiculturalism; politics, music and spirituality; music and everyday life; and the composers' tracing of their musical histories and compositions. Interview and photos by In Motion Magazine publisher Nic Paget-Clarke.

Part 1 - Founding An Independent Recording Label
Part 3 - The Legacy of Overcoming Obstacles
Part 4 - We want to bring our culture to people in our music
Part 5 - The recordings of Jon Jang and Francis Wong

Cultural Synthesis - a global international context

Francis Wong: We were developing our ideas about what we were trying to do aesthetically in the sense of our families being from China, but being here and developing a global international context. How were we synthesizing culture?

Once again, Cameron House, we had a forum here in March of '94. We had a forum and a subsequent publication called Asian American Music and Cultural Synthesis. This publication was about this idea of putting ourselves in the context of who has gone before us, Chinese traveling around the world and developing their place in different parts of the world - whether it's in Africa, Latin America, North America, or throughout Asia.

Trying to find that connection, how to adapt to the culture in the United States, is part of an ongoing process of the Chinese traveling around the world and settling in different places. Developing our own perspective has been informing a lot of the work in the '90s.

The changing definition of Asian Americans

Miya Masaoka - Compositions / ImprovisationsJon Jang: In the 1980s, the definition of Asian Americans included primarily Japanese Americans, then Chinese Americans and to a lesser extent Filipino Americans. In the 1980s there were a lot more Japanese American politicians. There were a number of Japanese American arts activists, more so than even Chinese Americans. But in the 1990s, there's been more recognition of Chinese Americans and China. We can look at Amy Tan, Wayne Wong, Jackie Chan. In politics there's Gary Locke (the governor of Washington). In city politics, in San Francisco, Mabel Teng. China has also developed.

It reminds me of parallels to the 1930s. The 1930s was an important period of Chinese American consciousness. There's a book by Renqiu Yu called To Save China, To Save Ourselves. It focused on Wayne Wang and the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance. A number of Chinese Americans in New York took a stand against Japanese fascism and linked that struggle to racism in the United States. There was a lot more attention paid towards the relationship between China and Chinese Americans.

Another different parallel is in the 1980s Japanese. Americans and Japan were strong, and then there was a backlash of anti-Asian violence against Japanese. Well now we're seeing Chinese Americans and China becoming strong and we also see in the media China bashing. There's a lot of similarities between what happened with Japanese Americans in the 1980s and what is happening to Chinese and Chinese Americans in the 1990s.

In 1992, Professor L. Ling-chi Wang of Berkeley helped organize the first Chinese diaspora conference in San Francisco in November in the Miyako Hotel. I participated in that and I met Chinese from all over the world and later on L. Ling-chi Wang wrote a book called The Changing Meaning of Chinese Americans in the U.S. That book reflected the shifts we are talking about.

International citizens of the world

Part of what Francis' and my music is about is the collaboration of Asian Americans and African Americans. As musicians who work in the world of jazz, who speak the language of jazz, we honor that tradition. We respect African Americans. Our race relationships have been strong because as artists we've developed that respect and understanding.

My next major project, When Sorrow Turns to Joy, is a collaboration with composer James Newton and poet Genny Lim. When Sorrow Turns to Joy is a music work which pays tribute to Paul Robeson and Mei Lanfang. Both Paul Robeson and Mei Lanfang were international citizens of the world. They were not only great artists for the people but they also were outspoken. They were people that had integrity and took stands against oppression.

When one looks at Paul Robeson, he wasn't only involved in African liberation, linking that with African American oppression, but he also had an internationalist perspective on the working class all over the world. When Francis and I talk about the Chinese diaspora it's part of an internationalism, of dealing with like-minded individuals all-over the world. It's something I'm trying to aspire to. To move ahead I'm looking back at people that were early examples of multicultural artists - Paul Robeson and Mei Lanfang.

Mei Lanfang was a great Chinese opera artist who took political stands against Chinese feudalism, and against Japanese fascism during the war of resistance against Japan. In his art he was not only committed to, and an innovator of, Beijing Opera, but to improve his singing he listened to Italian Bel Canto and African singing. In our work we are trying to deepen our roots as Chinese Americans by being committed to the study and development of Chinese music, to re-contextualization as we go into the 21st century in the U.S. We also are looking back so we can move forward.

In the 1980s we were inspired by Jesse Jackson, but we were also looking at Malcolm X, for example, The Ballad or the Bullet? which was put out in 1987. Now, we're looking at Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois, great intellectual world leaders who've been forgotten in the U.S. W.E.B. DuBois was the one who wrote that the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line. He wrote that in 1903, and now we are in 1997, five years after Rodney King, with immigrant bashing and Proposition 209. We're seeing the prison industry become a major industry. We're seeing people like Mumia Abu-Jamal ( ) on death row, while people like John DuPont are getting away with it. We are seeing that we haven't gone very far. Those leaders, those artists, were very much ahead of their time.

Music and politics. Political music?

In Motion Magazine: What does it mean to do political music? You've provided a lot of political context for music, but is there such a thing as political music?

Jon Jang: I feel uncomfortable with that phrase. Music is an expression of our minds and as artists we take the human responsibility to respond to the world around us and so we make statements. But I think that because most of our music is instrumental music that besides our titles and taking a stand if you just listen to the music it's not political music. The inspiration to draw upon people like Paul Robeson is the soul of the music. Sometimes it will be literate because he sang songs, but it's more the power of the music that interests me. Oftentimes in political music you make a political statement and then the music is the function of that. We will respond to certain events and the music will flow from that. Political and music seem kind of detached. It's always felt uncomfortable for me.

Francis Wong: I never looked at my music as political music. I see it as music. It's an expression of my soul. I know there is political music. I know that there is music specifically written to do certain things. We take certain political anthems and turn them into something else to make different artistic statements that are to me broader than the point of their original context.

It's hard. There may be a song that's written with a political impulse behind it but I think with the best music the impact is much much broader and actually speaks to humanity. I think the term political music is a confining term, so I don't apply it to myself. To look at myself I feel I have a certain level of political consciousness but I don't necessarily feel I'm a political person. I actually don't know what that means anymore. To me a lot of that's an anachronism. It's something that harks back to the '70s and '60s. Politics certainly exists, but being a complete definition of a person - I don't think so.

The unseen aspect of spirituality is becoming lost

Glenn Horiuchi / Lillian Nakano - Poston SonataJon Jang: My work Two Flowers on A Stem is about the embodiment of beauty, but then there's another work called Eleanor Bumpurs which I think is also the embodiment of beauty. It's in reference to an African American grandmother who was murdered by the police in the Bronx. I listen to the ballad, and it's beautiful. The problem with political music is it forces one to think that is political. It can deny the full experience and power of the music. I think one of the lessons I try to learn from Paul Robeson was that he said that when technology developed there was a split between man and science, between science and technology and spirituality. We're seeing this now in the 1990s with the development of technology. The unseen aspect of spirituality is becoming lost.

Francis Wong: Yes, I'd like to follow-up on that. I think that actually gets at more of your question. I think that part of the trend of the 20th century has been the separation of politics and spirituality. Hence you could have political music that lacks spiritual development. You've had politics in the 20th century, not just in the 20th century, but certainly in our time there's plenty of politics from the left and the right that lacks spiritual depth.

Take the composition Jon wrote, Eleanor Bumpurs. On the surface it may seem like a political composition but you listen to it and it's really a celebration of life, not just the joys of life but the tragedies as well. Which is the whole tradition of the blues.

My composition Prayer for Malcolm Truss is about this young African American who was killed by a policeman in San Jose. You could say 'oh yeah that's political,' but when you listen to the music it's really about passage. Passage from this world into the next. At least part of it, that's what it is really about. The solitude of that passage. The other part is really about how people feel about and relate to that as a community. At least that's what I hear after twelve years of listening and playing that piece.

What we're trying to do is more about an aesthetic which has to do with looking at the world and looking at life. Trying to grapple with meaning. And trying to grapple with the limitations that we face in our situation. To say I'm a political artist, I don't know. That's really up to somebody else. That's really up to somebody else's perception - it's certainly not mine.

Jon Jang: The power of spirituality and how that's related to politics - the African American movement for example - part of the reason it's so strong is the African American churches - the cultural development in the churches, and the spirituality. A number of African American leaders that we know of came out of the churches - Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson.

Francis Wong: Spirituality, finding that way, there's a lot of work to do. It's interesting this week with the death of Princess Diana. The outpouring in Britain really is endemic to a lot of what we face in advanced industrial societies, where it's all about accumulation. It's all driven economically, especially by the supposed leadership of these societies. There is a gap in dealing with humanity and spirituality.

We are sitting here in Cameron House having this discussion. We have found our way to places, institutions in the community that are trying to deal with Chinese American spirituality and how it relates to social action. That's the direction we've gone in in the '90s.

The revelations about the eastern bloc and the Tiananmen massacre did create a crisis of meaning among people who were trying to make changes in the world. A need to look at other ways of thinking about things. How do you relate as an individual, and how you relate to humanity, has a lot to do with the developments of the work we've been recreating since 1992.

Jon Jang: W.E.B. DuBois wrote the book, The Souls of Black Folk, and in that book he recognized the importance of African American music as being the foundation of African American culture. When we were talking about the music, When Sorrow Turns to Joy, for Francis and myself it's looking at the Chinese folk music, Chinese sorrow songs. Looking at the power of that - sorrow doesn't necessarily mean that the songs are sad - but as in Eleanor Bumpurs it's about celebration of life, about beauty and also tragedy. It's going through constant reexamination.

It might sound arrogant but we are in different places than say my exposure to the political movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s. When I was in school at the Oberlin Conservatory a number of Asian Americans valorized (the band) Hiroshima, but the music didn't speak to me. It didn't have the power or spirituality. It wasn't until 1981 when I saw the first Asian American Jazz Festival with Francis that we saw artists who had aspects of that in the music.

Spirituality, cultural empowerment: an affirmation of humanity

In about a month we are going to perform at a Chinese Historical Society of America event that will include people from Forbidden City, an early example of cultural empowerment. Forbidden City was a night club that was owned by Chinese, and featured Chinese, from 1937 to 1961. A lot of those Chinese Americans did it for fun. It wasn't profound but I'd say it was significant . If we grow into history and look into what we have been trying to do there's another level beyond the economic, Asian American representation. It goes deeper than that.

Francis Wong: What are the goals of us as a community? There's this concern of the glass ceiling, being able to get higher paying jobs. Issues of the model minority, of achievement. That's fine because we've been denied access. But what we are trying to do is get at the real meaning of that. What does it mean to be held back? What does it mean to be held down? What are we really trying to do when we try to advance? That's the whole thing about affirmation of our humanity.

Unfortunately in this day and age it's very easy to lose that in the pursuit of success. That's a lot of the statement we are trying to make in our music and how we deal with our careers. It's fine to pursue success but we want to point out that there are some definite weaknesses in how people are going about it. We need to be based in history, in the context of our experience in this country. How people have been held down. There's this tremendous legacy of trying to overcome these obstacles.

Published in In Motion Magazine February 25, 1998.

If you have any thoughts on this or would like to contribute to an ongoing discussion in the
E-mail, Opinions & Discussion column click here to send e-mail to