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"Mei Lanfang and Paul Robeson were really humanist.
Humanist on the highest level."

An interview with composers
Jon Jang and James Newton

Part 2 - The Spiritual Tributary

Interview by Nic Paget-Clarke
Los Angeles, California

This interview of James Newton and Jon Jang was conducted for In Motion Magazine by Nic Paget-Clarke in Los Angeles, January 21, 2000. At the time of the interview, Jon Jang and James Newton were in the process of composing "When Sorrow Turns to Joy - Songlines: The Spiritual Tributary of Paul Robeson and Mei Lanfang" (libretto by Genny Lim). This piece is inspired by the artistic and political legacies of the African American singer/actor/humanitarian Paul Robeson and Chinese operatic star Mei Lanfang. It was commissioned by Cal Performances - University of California at Berkeley and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Collaboration / Influences

James Newton: We are very free with our influences, and we don’t try to hide them. Sometimes influences can jump out and claim a presence in your art, and that is ok for me. I can look at the work of a lot of masters that I admire greatly and one of the things that I’ve begun to see, as I’ve gotten a little older, is the people that they loved when they were young, when they were developing their styles, they sublimated that influence. They first tried to hide it, or push it to the background, but then when they got a little older their passion grew and they let that influence come up to the top.

There are certain people and music that we both share that have been powerful influences for us, whether it be Duke Ellington, or Olivier Messiaen, or certain aspects of Chinese sorrow songs, or certain aspects of polyphonic practices of the African Pygmy. All of those things have the right to come and claim a place in the work because this is about cultural plurality in a significant and powerful way.

You look at Paul and you look at Mei Lan you can take them as individuals and they were culturally pluralistic. What Jon and I are claiming is our cultural pluralities as collaborators in this project. And that is more significant in our cultural pluralities as individuals. That’s something that Ellington and Strayhorn had, and that’s why we look at them as models.

They could get to the place where they have an art of their own separately then they created an art that existed between the middle of them. And that’s what’s hard nowadays because composition is supposed to be solitary and people are so concerned with putting themselves out to the point of where they don’t know what it’s like to collaborate.

It’s one of the reasons why certain aspects of what is known as jazz really turns me off. I’m interested in the ensemble a lot more than the star system, of being the soloist that is going to be out front all of the time. That to me is really boring right now.

That’s why I listen to a lot of ragtime, improvised ragtime, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, and Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Hot Sevens. They had that spirit - it was such a group music. It was everyone playing to support one another. It’s not like “I” “me” “I” “me’. We’ve got to figure out a way to get way beyond that in our art for the sake of humanity.

Mei Lanfang and Paul Robeson were really humanist. Humanist on the highest level.

The Spiritual Tributary

Jon Jang: One of the metaphors in this work is the symbol of water.

James can speak to that with African American spirituals. In Chinese music there is the “River of Sorrow / Zheng He Shui”. Paul Robeson identified with a poem by Lao Tzu which was about the strength of water and the flexibility of it. This was mentioned in Susan Robeson’s “The Whole World in His Hands - A Pictorial Essay of Paul Robeson.” Susan Robeson is the granddaughter of Paul Robeson. She mentioned that whenever Paul was feeling down, he would refer to this poem, in a similar way that people refer to the Bible.

Paul Robeson also recorded a work called “Song of the Rivers”, initiated by an organization from Britain. Paul didn’t know who wrote the lyrics and who was producing this documentary film, but it was a way to honor the six mighty rivers: the Mississippi, the Nile, the Amazon, the Volga, the Yangtze, and the Ganges. He had difficulty recording that work because it was during the McCarthy period. The major recording companies didn’t want to record it and the independent record companies were fearful. The meaning of this work is the spiritual tributaries. You see, rivers intersect the great body of the earth, honoring the planet, honoring the water.

James Newton: One of the things about water is it symbolizes freedom.

“Steal Away”. The Underground Railroad. A lot of times escaping through water so the tracks won’t be followed. All of the spirituals that talk about crossing the River Jordan, being able to go to Heaven, always a better life at the other end of the water. That’s a powerful consideration.

Water can be incredibly forceful and also very elegant and tranquil and amazingly beautiful and peaceful. Particularly with Mei Lan I thought about the beauty of water. His movements, his voice and so on.

There’s so many powerful images in the African American canon related to water. “I’ve Known Rivers” by Langston Hughes is something that jumps out to me very strongly. “Wade in The Water.” In the South people were taken to creeks and rivers and submerged -- which is very different than Catholicism where one might be sprinkled. It’s one of the things that we say in the Baptist church, “Have you been submerged?”, baptized. And the significance of when you come up you come up a new person. You come up a changed person. You’ve been transformed. Your life is no longer the same. It’s like you’ve left your old life behind.

I have images in my head of being five years old and witnessing baptisms in rural Arkansas. You’d see beautiful brown and black skin dressed in white going down in the river and coming up, and the look of jubilation on the faces as they come up. The intensity and power of the preacher. The songs that we sing associated with being baptized have a great significance.

In Motion Magazine: As you say, both Robeson and Mei did much to express their humanity, yet they both expressed it with music. How do you think that came to be?

Jon Jang: Paul Robeson mentioned that song is the purest expression of humanity. He spoke of that when he started collaborating with Lawrence Brown, the pianist and arranger, and how that re-affirmed the importance of the songs in day to day life. With James, gospel music are sermons that are sung. When I speak with Chinese musicians, they sing Chinese folk songs and it is in their blood.

Song and poetry are interconnected in Chinese and African cultures. In the church, the phrasing, the rhythm, it is the language of the people, African, African American, there’s a cultural memory. With Chinese people, there is a history and tradition in which poetry and music are not separate. You hear it in the language. They are tonal languages. There is a rhythmic way in how Chinese is spoken, recited, half sung. Poetry and music are interconnected.

In Motion Magazine: Mei Lanfang and Paul Robeson were both involved politically in many ways -- yet it is their music that is most remembered. Why?

James Newton: That is their primary expression. That is what I say. But the shadow of Othello leans over this piece also. They were both phenomenal actors. You have to be a great actor for Beijing opera, and Paul was a powerful actor. Mei Lan was a wonderful painter. Paul did so many things and did them so well.

The Right to Travel

In Motion Magazine: You speak of their universality, of them being international citizens, of an African American and a Chinese man both performing in the Soviet Union in the ’30s - maybe you could talk about travel.

Jon Jang: Paul Robeson said this about the right to travel. In a lot of ways travel is an expression of freedom.

It wasn’t so much that he was personally persecuted during the 1950s. His previous generation had to move to Europe. It wasn’t so that they could become elitists, it was so that they could be respected and indirectly help African Americans. For example, the great actor Ira Aldridge who first played Othello in London, was originally from Albany New York. But he found more opportunities in London - and this actually helped African Americans.

When we were in South Africa, people said why are you so critical of the United States? But it’s up to us to let the world know about the United States, because that has an impact on the U.S. changing it’s policies. World public opinion.

The right to travel is an expression of freedom, but it’s for us to not only share the music and humanity with other people but also to put out issues about the struggles of people in the U.S.

In Motion Magazine: Didn’t the U.S. take away Robeson’s passport?

Jon Jang: There was an unofficial ban. They persecuted him but he didn’t commit anything illegal. They just wouldn’t allow him to travel. Not even to Canada when you didn’t even need a passport. He gave a concert where he performed over the telephone.

Jon Jang and James Newton
James Newton and Jon Jang. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke
In Motion Magazine: Why do you think they took away his passport?

James Newton: They didn’t want him to leave the country and criticize the country for number one. And they also wanted to make him suffer for speaking out and standing defiant. That’s the thing that still occurs so much in our society. You look at the role of the African American male in this society and we are an endangered species, to a degree. You look at how many African American males are in jail right now. I could not begin to recount the experiences that have occurred in my life when I have stood up as a man and spoken very strong on issues. The response in academia for doing that has been rather severe. There’s nothing they can do to me, but you feel the pangs of the continual racism when you make a strong stance.

They wanted to make him suffer. They were jealous of the fact that economically he was a very successful artist. They wanted to strip his ability to even feed his family to punish him. They knew they couldn’t take him and lynch him because he was too famous, too well known. The international outrage would be too great. So they formed another way to make him suffer -- to take away the ability of his art to flourish. That was the thing that he loved the most and was closest to him.

In Motion Magazine: Do you think that partly it was because they didn’t want the U.S. to be represented by an African American?

James Newton: No.

Jon Jang: During the ’50s he was a dangerous red and a dangerous black. He said he didn’t belong to the Communist party but he admired Ben Davis. He didn’t care whether you were a communist or not, it was what was your stand.

James Newton: There’s a really important point. In the ’50s, Louis Armstrong made a record entitled “Ambassador Satch” because the state department was sending him all over the world. They deemed him to be a safe image of what an African American male can be and they didn’t think that he would speak out on politics. But when the children were not allowed to go to school in ’57 Louis Armstrong went left on them. He spoke out so strongly against the policies of the nation that the state department, the government, they were just shocked and appalled. But he said I don’t care what you do to me. This is wrong. You people are evil.

You always have safe people who are more concerned about themselves than they are about the good of their people. I’m not putting Louis Armstrong in that position because Armstrong is a central figure in the 20th century, one of the greatest musicians that ever walked the earth and somebody I love and respect to the nth, but everybody has got different roads to travel down. Some people are going to holler louder than others. Mingus hollered real loud. It’s one of the reasons that we love Mingus so much. Because there’s so much of a political statement and a need to politicize music in Charles Mingus.

More on Collaboration and Influences

In Motion Magazine: How did you first meet?

Jon Jang: Anthony Brown introduced us. I was performing at the Third Asian American Jazz Festival at the Herbst. Anthony introduced James to me and it was like a dream. I had read about James and his music and how he sees music, citing Mahalia Jackson, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Dolphy and Olivier Messiaen. We had kinships for different musics.

James was already a composer, artist, and performer. I was still in a state where I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. As my relationship with James grew I began to develop a depth of understanding about our common influences, including Olivier Messiaen.

In Motion Magazine: What was the first thing you did together?

James Newton: It was the anti-apartheid benefits. When we first got together we looked at Mingus’ “Meditations on Integration”, and we thought that that piece was really apropos. We loved Mingus. We also played Olivier Messiaen’s “Le Merle Noir” because Jon had recorded parts of Messiaen’s “Catalogue d’ Oiseaux”. Which one?

Jon Jang: The first one. “Le Chocard des Alpes”.

James Newton: We played each other’s music a lot. So we know one anther’s languages.

We had two significant experiences between ’92 and ’94. You wrote “Tiananmen” and we had a chance to play it in San Francisco in Chinatown. That was a significant experience. And another significant experience was with a piece I wrote after my father’s death, “The Line of Immortality”, a piece for jazz quartet and chamber orchestra. We did that with the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players and the L.A. Phil.

Then, like I said, we played in each other’s improvising groups and contexts.

The logical next step is to do something big - to collaborate. We learned a lot about collaboration. You have to do something different to make it work, than what you normally do. We have to consistently look at what each other does and the way we go about doing it.

In Motion Magazine: What are some specifics of “When Sorrow Turns to Joy”?

James Newton: It’s an amazing honor to collaborate with Genny Lim, Ellen Sebastian Chang, Pan Yongling, Li Jing Ping, Jiebing, Tootie Heath. It’s an incredible group of artists. We’re going to make hot and sour gumbo.

In Motion Magazine: One last question. How does Messiaen fit in to this mix?

James Newton: Color. He would hear music and see colors. He was really precise in the shades and combinations of different colors that existed when he would put his hand on the organ and piano. Also he was into ornithology very deeply and when he was doing “Catalogue d’Oiseaux”, which Jon recorded, he wasn’t just doing bird songs alone. He was taking the sound of the water hitting the rocks and the flight of the birds and translating that into the composition. All of this was coming out of the piano.

And for me being a Christian it was the fact that for most of his life he wrote sacred music. That’s really significant to me. The fact that he celebrated his love of God. But he was a very human man. He had some times in his life to where what he was doing and his faith really conflicted and there was times when he was really troubled and he came out of that. Everybody has that struggle.

For me he was an improviser all of his life. The European organ tradition is the only continual tradition of improvisation that existed in their classical music. He had another kind of view of composition because he was an improviser.

The whole thing of timelessness, of breaking down time to where it’s reflective of infinity to connect with God. Both of us are really into harmony. That’s why we like Duke and Strayhorn so much. Why we like Mingus so much. Why we both love Takemitsu.

Return to Part 1 - On the creation of "When Sorrow Turns to Joy".

Published in In Motion Magazine March 20, 2000