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A Conversation with
Jon Jang and Francis Wong

10th Anniversary of Asian Improv

Part 3 - The Legacy of Overcoming Obstacles

San Francisco, California

Francis WongThis is part three 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.

The legacy of overcoming obstacles

Francis Wong: Both Jon and I teach college. I'm on the faculty at San Francisco State, and Santa Cruz and Jon's over at the University of California (UC) Berkeley. We are trying to impart to the young people that you've got to have some values because you will face some pretty intense obstacles once you get out of college and into the world.

For example, the man in Sonoma who did Tai Chi at night and got shot by the police and killed. That stuff is still going on. We have to have a firm grounding in a perspective of what our life as a people has been in this country. We need to develop in ourselves an inner strength to deal with the harsh realities of living in society.

In our music we want to make sure that that comes out. That we inspire that level of self-examination, that level of self-development. Since success in this society as an artist is defined by how much money you make and how much recognition you get, pretty superficial values, there's a real need for people to find art that makes people go forward and deeper into themselves. As opposed to just saying that's cool, that's pretty, that's nice, that's funny, that's entertaining. That's great, but in these very difficult times we need art and expression which helps us all go deeper.

In Motion Magazine: Why did you (Jon) personally start playing music?

Jon Jang: It's probably for precisely that reason.

"It's more like music came to me,
as opposed to me coming to the music." - Jon Jang

In Motion Magazine: And how did you pick an instrument?

Jon Jang: I've been thinking about this.. I was raised by my mother, because my father died when I was only two years old. She sang a lot of music and I heard a lot of music, mainly classical music. A lot of the classical music was Tchaikovsky or Rossini and the melodies were played on the French horn, so that was one of the early instruments I learned.

I remember there was a production of the Gypsy Baron by Strauss. My mother had to raise three kids by herself. She was a home body. She had other problems as well. I really wanted to go see this production but I wasn't able to because my mother wasn't able to get the tickets. She didn't go out and she didn't have that aggressive type of behavior. But I wanted to go so badly that somehow I was able to get tickets to the dress rehearsal.

Anyway, for some reason, music had a different impact on me than on other children, I don't know if it was because of the death of my father. It was hard growing up in a white community with no father and a mother who came from the working class. It's hard to say on a conscious level. Maybe it sounds cliché, but music became like a religion. It's more like music came to me, as opposed to me coming to the music.

On an unconscious level the music that came around me, like Paul Robeson when I was four years old, was part of my sensory memory. The briefest kind of experience can have the most profound impact on you, in ways that are unexplainable. I'm a father, I have a two year-old, I'm seeing how my daughter senses things. I'm shocked to see how much she picks up.

In Motion Magazine: How old were you when you started playing music a lot?

Jon Jang. Photo by Nic Paget-ClarkeJon Jang: I was ten years old when I played the snare drum and the French horn in the concert band. I played the French horn because of the classical music. I switched to cornet because my mother was afraid that the French horn was too big for me. I was a small kid (Francis laughs). Sometimes that's how instruments are selected. The larger size kids get the trombone. Usually the girls will play the violin or the flute. You rarely see boys playing the flute. Instruments were often selected by the size of the person or their gender. I switched to the cornet in particular because the trumpet was a popular instrument - Herb Alpert and Al Hirt (more laughing).

The selection of piano during junior high is more of an interesting story. During band rehearsals there was a cacophony of sound (more laughing). There were always people playing and tuning up. You see, music and sports were always in the late afternoons. Kids could just let go of their energy.

Anyway, I would go to the piano and fiddle around. There were always students playing Heart & Soul or Fur Elise. What I could do was play Heart & Soul with both parts, the accompaniment and the melody, using my left hand and my right hand. I was one of the few kids who could do that and improvise. I'd play Fur Elise, the Beethoven piece, but I played it like a blues. When it came down to the band director asking who can play piano in the stage band, the students shouted, "Jang can."

Later on I played Farfisa organ in a kid's garage band. We played the Doors' Light My Fire, Procul Harum's Whiter Shade of Pale, John Mayall and the Blues Breakers, Jimi Hendrix songs. At that time of AM music there was James Brown and Jimi Hendrix, and the Archies. It was an interesting period.

But even Procul Harum's Whiter Shade of Pale or Light My Fire by the Doors were art music. If you listen to the lyrics , it was artfully done. Some of the Doors were filmmakers. It was the counter-hegemonic period of the 1960s. I wasn't exposed to African American music till later.

"I had an original sound, and a personality
that most people didn't think most Chinese Americans had."

In Motion Magazine: What made you think you wanted to start composing your own music?

Jon Jang: In a radio interview recently I said that the improvisation of Heart & Soul was the beginning. But when I was at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music I wrote a big band piece called It's Only A Matter of Time Before I'm Left Alone. Maybe that was a political statement, but I knew that somehow I was different in the Conservatory. People even reminded me that I was different (Francis laughs). I wrote Haunting Memories Speak Softly. Those were early examples of my own compostion.

Part of It's Only A Matter of Time Before I'm Left Alone dealt with racism. I wrote a poem No Shampooee for Q, something like that. I used words like "Yellow Peril Piss," and "Ching Chong Chinaman". It was a multi-sectional work. Unconsciously it was influenced by Mingus, but at that time I really didn't know much about Charles Mingus. The little I knew of Charles Mingus, a lot of people thought he was crazy. There were similarities in that people thought I was a very different Chinese American.

I was one of three Asian American students in the Conservatory, the only one from the West Coast, and the one that did not study classical music as long. I played jazz, but it was ... let's say I had an original sound, and a personality that most people didn't think most Chinese Americans had.

One thing about the Conservatory was there was a certain kind of dress, particularly with vocal majors. I would go into the conservatory with a t-shirt, which sometimes was torn, and sometimes it was a tie-dyed t-shirt, or I'd wear a beret, or I wore a beard. Sometimes I'd get comments like "you don't seem like a Conservatory student, you seem like a college student", and actually a lot of the students who did play jazz were from the college, not the conservatory.

I think that was the beginning, when I knew music
was about developing a personal voice.

In Motion Magazine: Can you remember what was the impulse to write your own compositions?

Jon Jang: If I look at Haunting Memories Speak Softly or It's Only A Matter of Time Before I'm Left Alone, already from the titles there's the inference that I'm making a personal statement about my life. You have to understand that music education does not nurture people to compose. It's about playing instrumental music, concert music, marching band music in the late afternoon, just blowing, following a conductor. You're not encouraged to even write eight bars of melody. At least in creative writing you have to write an essay, 'How I spent my summer vacation'. That's a personal statement, but music education in the public schools is not about personal creativity. In the classical music world usually you are taught to compose compositions that are based on musical techniques.

Francis Wong: Composers are seen as separate.

Jon Jang: They're seen separate, as performers. OK, say you are to write a sonata.Work #1 for clarinet and piano, or clarinet and oboe. Write for the instrument. You learn to write for instruments, techniques. For example, it's funny but Beethoven didn't call that piano sonata the Moonlight Sonata -- that was sort of a marketing thing that came later. It made it more personalized.

I think that was the beginning, when I knew music was about developing a personal voice.

Jon Jang: I had a high school friend who was like-minded but white students who were friends of mine and who wanted to be artists were informed by Dadaism and existentialism. During that counter-hegemonic period you were not so much informed by political thinking but more by an isolated hermetic way of anti-establishment thinking. There was a lot of introversion. In some ways that was personal. But there was really no meaning, or context. I couldn't go there. I had to go some place else. I was able to take that experience and go in a deeper way, in a personalized way.

"Through the immigrant experience my parents
sought out music as a way to help them get by." - Francis Wong

Jeff Song & Matt Turner -- in vivoFrancis Wong: I think we all get involved in music. As a child I was into it. I think what I got from my parents was a real love for music. My parents loved music. They saw listening to music as something that really helped them get through all the difficulties in life. A lot of that was the experiences that they had gone through in growing up in the middle of the Chinese revolution and fighting in World War II, and eventually coming to this country. Through the immigrant experience my parents sought out music as a way to help them get by.

They always encouraged me to listen to music and to approach things as a participant. Both my parents used to put on the records and sing along. Whether it was march music or opera or French music. They were into French music because my mother is a French speaker. Also, my father used to try to play the guitar. My older brother made a guitar in woodshop, and my father used to try and play it. When I got to be old enough to take music in school they bought me a violin and I started on the violin.

That's the context, you don't really just start music. It's in you and it's around you. It could be less around you or more around you, but it was more around me.

Then I had the opportunity.

My older brothers didn't have the opportunity to play music because, new to this country, my parents couldn't afford to get them instruments. As the third and fourth children in the family, me and my younger brother were part of a time when our family was doing a little bit better. My father could afford to buy me a violin on installments, a $50 violin. So I started on the violin.

We played music as part of life

My development in music was shaped by the musical culture that I had got involved in. I used to take lessons from people in the church. I remember playing in what they used to call the family orchestra. There were Czechoslovakian folks in the church who were musicians and they had a church orchestra playing classical pieces. They were immigrants too. We were in an Italian working class and Latino working class community. We played music as part of life. None of us were going to be virtuosos or anything like that.

My first idea that I could be a professional musician came from the last violin teacher I had, Mrs. Klipfel. She was German. She helped me define my musical identity in the sense that I studied violin with her and used to play in the Lutheran services. She used to have us play in the convalescent homes. She herself couldn't make her full living off of music. She taught. She performed a lot. Chamber music. In big Bach masses. She taught school. She was a substitute teacher. Her husband was a working class laborer. He worked in a print shop.

My introduction to the life of a musician was hers. She was the one who told my parents that she thought that I could be a professional musician if I wanted. That vision of an artist or musician was very different from what most of us think of. Especially once we go to college. The star influence of society, it's all about success. She had a working class community-oriented approach to being a professional musician. She was a great violinist. She was very well respected. At the same time her sense of purpose in the music was pretty clear. It wasn't about fame and fortune. The fact that she was more from the German, European tradition had some influence in the way I approached things, as opposed to a more elitist approach. So even though I was playing classical music it wasn't that elitist.

When I went to college, I went to Stanford, I wasn't going to be finding that kind of musical culture. For myself going to college, it was a transformative period, a cultural shock. I had to figure out who I was in the context of this elitist university. That was the period of my political awakening.

I ended up being able to be a professional musician by rediscovering on my own those values that had brought me into music in the first place.

A plug for music in public education

In Motion Magazine: How did you come to take up the saxophone?

Francis Wong: This is a plug for music in public education. My band teacher in junior high was a saxophonist. Playing music in school was very social, like Jon was talking about, you get together in the afternoon and you blow off steam. We used to hang around the band room and the teacher used to play Charlie Parker records. He used to get his saxophone out and play for us. I was inspired to take up the saxophone. Listening to those Charlie Parker records I heard something that moved me deeply.

Jon Jang: So how come the tenor and not alto.

Francis Wong: Well, I started on alto.

Jon Jang: Oh.

Francis Wong: Then I switched to tenor after high school.

Jon Jang: So why did you switch to tenor?

Francis Wong: John Coltrane. John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins. These artists really spoke to me. I would hear them on records and they'd just speak to me. I would have to pursue it.

It also had to do with discovering the African American tradition and finding my self and my desire to express myself politically and personally. That music had freedom in it. It was at the same time that I was learning about Malcolm X. In the '60s, there was a big struggle to express yourself and a desire to change the direction of the country. To me that mirrored my own development. I wanted to make a change in my musical direction. I was playing classical music and that was fine, but I wanted to make my own statement and improvising, playing the blues, was how I came to be able to make that personal statement.

Part 1 - Founding An Independent Recording Label
Part 2 - Cultural Synthesis: A Global International Context
Part 4 - We want to bring our culture to people in our music
Part 5 - The recordings of Jon Jang and Francis Wong

Published in In Motion Magazine February 25, 1998.