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East Meets Left: Politics, Culture and Asian-American Jazz

Jon Jang
Miya Masaoka
Vijay Iyer
Fred Ho

If jazz is any barometer, the issue of race in the U.S. is still largely two dimensional: black and white. For a supposedly progressive art form, this is deeply troubling. And it’s baffling that jazz historians still argue the African and European antecedents of jazz as if they were locked in a property dispute.

Given jazz’s great past achievements as a unifying cultural force, it’s a shame that the jazz-and-race polemic seems terminally stuck on the distinction between the ownership of and an easement to a century-old well. If jazz were literally such a well, no court would deny access to any of the parties after decades of shared use, even if one party holds clear title. Therefore,.if the issue of responsible use and stewardship is to be reflected through the discussion of race through jazz, the binary black-and-white model has to be jettisoned to reflect the rapid diversification of the U.S. population, 10 million of whom cited “Other” as their race on the 2000 Census.

There are several prerequisites for a new model for the discussion of race through jazz. Arguably, first and foremost would be the elimination of Latin jazz’s subgenre status. In CD shops, Latin jazz has its own bins at the end of the jazz section, usually tucked in between big bands and smooth jazz. Latin jazz has its own shows on what’s left of jazz radio in the U.S., as well as its own slots in venue and festival schedules. Given Latin jazz’s active connection to the African diaspora, this de facto segregation is inexplicable. Still, the solutions to this aberration are remarkably simple: start filing Tito Puente CDs in between those of Bobby Previte and Don Pullen; intelligently integrate Latin jazz into radio sets; and drop odious marketing ploys like “Latin Night.” To some, such tactics for putting and keeping Latin jazz in the mix may seem cosmetic or, worse, potentially diluting to the ethnic identity crucial to Latin jazz’s vitality, but they lay the foundation for its full enfranchisement.

Hybridity and multiple identities are increasingly central to jazz’s discussion about race. After all, a black Dominican, a white Cuban and an indigenous Guatemalan are equally Latino in the U.S. Conversely, countless Latinos are of mixed heritage-making “Latino” a flimsy umbrella of an identifier for some purposes. The real unity of Latinos in the U.S. is borne of struggle, beginning with the histories of colonial oppression in their homelands, often-brutal postcolonial tyranny and frequently virulent strains of American racism. Latinos bring a different legacy of struggle to the discussion than African-Americans; hearing their voices begins to acknowledge the historical complexity of race-based oppression in the U.S.

However, this historical complexity cannot be fully articulated as long as Asian-Americans are marginalized in jazz. Their American experience of oppression is stunning in its scope and duration, spanning the opening of the West with indentured Chinese labor, the confiscation of property from and the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II and the post-9/11 backlash against Muslims. Particularly since the 1960s, there have been waves of Asian immigrants fleeing the aftermath of U.S. foreign policy debacles. And Koreans and other Asian-Americans have found themselves on the receiving end of the trickle-down racism of African-Americans.

At the same time, many Asian-Americans assimilate into the American mainstream with considerable ease, sometimes, like ice-skating diva Michelle Kwan, rising to pop-culture-icon status with little or anything made of their ethnicity. Their academic prowess is such that many school districts do not include Asian-Americans in their assessments of minority achievement. Consequently, the Asian-American experience is impervious to facile reduction.

This may partially explain why the Bay Area-launched Asian-American jazz movement is little known even within enlightened jazz circles, despite having produced a large share of the most compelling, social-justice-driven jazz of the past 20 years. The uncompromising politics of the Asian-American jazz movement’s early years may account for its conspicuous absence in such high-profile symposia as Jazz and Race: Black, White and Beyond, sponsored by SFJazz in 2001.

Regardless, the Asian-American jazz community faces a problem that has changed surprisingly little since the 1980s, when a core of Asian-American musicians merged the politics of the left and avant-garde jazz to form one of the most politically committed movements in American musical history: How to change the American mindset about race and culture through the most American of art forms?

In the analysis of such stalwarts as pianist Jon Jang, baritone saxophonist Fred Ho and percussionist Anthony Brown, the Asian-American jazz movement no longer functions as it was initially conceived by its early exponents, as part of the cultural wing of a larger, radical Asian-American movement with roots in the Bay Area Third World Strikes of the early ’70s. Despite its splintering along ideological lines in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the movement’s jazz phalanx built enduring structures, particularly the Asian-American Jazz Festivals (held in four cities in 2002) and the San Francisco-based Asian Improv Records, perhaps the U.S.’s most important chronically under-the-radar label. Sustained by artist-organizers like saxophonist Francis Wong (who co-founded Asian Improv with Jang in 1987), the Bay Area Asian-American scene became a beacon of identity formation and artistic self-realization for subsequent waves of Asian-American artists such as koto player Miya Masaoka and pianist Vijay Iyer. The contrast between Jang, Ho and Brown’s assessment of the movement and Masaoka and Iyer’s is striking and is representative of the complex weave of political, cultural and artistic issues underlying present-day Asian-American Ho’s militancy has made him something of an unperson in some quarters of the Asian-American jazz scene, and mention of his name can elicit stutters from normally articulate people. It’s not hard to figure out why. For a guy who wears glasses, the Mohawk-sporting former construction worker and retired hand-to-hand combat specialist is an imposing figure. Educated at Harvard, and the editor of such books as Legacy to Liberation: Politics and Culture of Revolutionary Asian Pacific America (AK Press) and Sounding Off! Music As Subversion/Resistance/Revolution (Autonomedia), Ho can break soft left equivocation like a board with his revolutionary rhetoric. He spurns the schmoozey money chase of nonprofits and the hollow liberalism of corporate and foundation arts funding. Ho tells it like it is with something that approximates a chop to the cerebellum.

Yet there is nothing severe or monolithic about Ho’s music. Though it has a blues-informed toughness traceable to Mingus and Julius Hemphill (in a rare sideman gig, Ho played in the latter’s sextet during the 1990s), Ho’s compositions also possess abundant warm lyricism and soaring swing. While Ho’s operas and theater projects frequently feature revolutionaries like the Black Panthers or African and Asian Womyn Warriors as their protagonists, the dramas also veer into the realm of popular entertainment. That’s the case with the dazzlingly choreographed martial-arts sequences of Ho’s Voice of the Dragon: Once Upon a Time in Chinese America (Innova/Big Red Media), whose storyline of betrayal from within a 17th century Chinese revolutionary martial-arts movement parallels Ho’s take on the Asian-American movement’s dissipation.

“I prefer to call what I do Asian-American music and not jazz, because jazz has become increasingly narrow and exclusionary,” Ho says. “My work seems to be going in the opposite direction of where most of jazz is going today. The irony is one [photographer and archivist] Frank Driggs pointed out to me. He said what I’m doing with martial arts and jazz is closer to what jazz was about than anything the mainstream people are doing. He was pointing out how Ellington created new forms of musical theater, cabaret, spectacles and extravaganzas that were both entertaining and experimental; that it’s been forgotten that jazz is a theatrical music.

“I stand fiercely opposed to the conservative thrust jazz has taken in the last decade and a half,” Ho pronounces, adding that jazz conservatism and the inability of the jazz-and-race discourse to get beyond the “binary model” are facets of the same problem. “The irony is that I am more successful through my opposition than a lot of musicians are by swimming with the mainstream. Who does 33 cities and does over 50 shows on a tour in the U.S., with 23 people on payroll? This is unprecedented, yet I’ve done this without being signed to a major jazz label, and without getting cover stories in the slick jazz magazines. I don’t think I could accomplish this if I did not stand apart from even the officially recognized avant-garde.”

Ho sees the advent of a “popular avant-garde”-he refers to his own stage works as “living comic books”-as the flanking maneuver that will correct Asian-American’s marginal status. “Asian-Americans are marginalized in jazz because we are still often perceived to be foreigners, and all we have to contribute is something exotic,” Ho explains. “We have to create new classics for the future, and we can only do that with something new and fresh. People may come to Voice of the Dragon for the martial arts, but it exposes them to jazz without proselytizing to them, and without incorporating hip-hop. It’s avant-garde work that is entertaining.”

The alternative, Ho contends, is Asian-Americans remaining a sidebar issue in jazz’s discussion of race, which is missing a most salient point. “The mainstream jazz discourse on race has always overlooked the historical complexity of oppression in America. This includes racism, but also the annexation of peoples and nations, including Puerto Rico, Hawaii-which was a constitutional monarchy overthrown by five sugar plantation families and U.S. Marines-Guam, so-called American Samoa, the Marshall Islands, the entire Southwest, which was taken from Mexico. There is also the entire history of abrogated treaties with native nations.”

Ho says avoiding the history reinforces the American tendency “to accept a very simplistic either/or concept: You’re either American or you’re not. This is in conflict with the fact that the identity of America has never been consistent, uniform or stable. It’s the consequence of conquest and annexation. The failure of the discussion of race in jazz stems from an ideological conservatism that only sees color and race, one that does not really understand that the very concept of America is one of hybridity and multiple identities.”

If the left truly advocates those political processes that liberate and empower, it follows that its exponents will evolve and go their own way. No other musician in the Asian-American jazz movement has tested the validity of this premise more than Jon Jang.

Jang’s music has undergone a subtle but profound transformation in recent years. After years of composing what can be generally considered jazz works utilizing Chinese materials and traditional instruments, such as those on his early ’90s Pan-Asian Arkestra Soul Note albums\ Self Defense! and Tiananmen!, Jang has all but reversed the portions of Chinese and jazz ingredients in works like Up From the Root!, which he premiered at the 2002 San Francisco Jazz Festival with a sextet rounded out by saxophonist David Murray (with whom he recently released a duo CD, River of Life, on Asian Improv), drummer Eddie Marshall and the three-piece traditional ensemble Melody of China.

This trajectory in Jang’s work parallels his ongoing investigation into Chinese identity, which produced such provocative albums as Are You Chinese or Charlie Chan? (RPM) as early as 1984. Up From the Root! was inspired by Jang’s articulation of the Chinese diaspora. “I attended the first Chinese diaspora conference in San Francisco that was organized by Professor Ling-chi Wang in 1992,” Jang explains shortly after the piece’s premiere. “The theme of the conference was ‘Luodi Shengten,’ which comes from a Chinese expression ‘where the root falls, it shall grow.’ Professor Ling-chi Wang had extended that further in a book about the changing meaning of being a Chinese-American. He assembled Chinese from all over the world-South Africa, Cuba, Mexico, Madagascar. It was an inspiring celebration of Chinese identity.”

As typified by the materials he used for Up From the Root!, the challenge for the jazz composer using Chinese melodies, Jang suggests, lies in their lyrical and rhythmic simplicity. To compensate for the lack of harmonic progression in Chinese music, Jang uses color and timbre in creating both the ensembles and the piano parts. “Luckily, there is a jazz tradition in Strayhorn and Wayne Shorter of moving the melody with color and timbre, which I had in mind when I wrote the piece,” Jang says. “I placed the rhythm on the offbeat so that it would create more rhythmic interest, combined with the rhythmic feel of the southern Chinese instruments.”

The other problem in creating this type of piece is that Chinese musicians do not have a tradition of collective improvisation. “They don’t know how to do it,” Jang concedes. “So putting them together with someone like David Murray is risky, and you have to create structures that the Chinese musicians can relate to, something from their world on which they can improvise, while giving someone like David the ability to go where he will go.”

Up From the Root! reflects Jang’s evolving sense of being Chinese. “That explains the change in my music to a degree,” Jang says. “I shifted from a political focus to a cultural focus, which wasn’t strictly along the lines of the Asian-American movement. With the end of the Soviet Union and Tiananmen Square, I moved away from the Marxist-Leninist model. In the 1990s, I started collaborating with both African-American artists like David Murray and James Newton, and musicians who perform traditional Chinese music. In working with musicians from other communities, I acknowledge the power of being part of a diaspora, in being able to move from one place to another. In working with traditional musicians, I acknowledge the source of my identity as Chinese.”

Another factor in Jang’s own evolving sense is his Christian identity. “I belong to New Covenant Baptist Church in San Francisco, so what’s changing in my music has to do with recognizing my purpose in life,” explains Jang, who once played piano for the services of an African-American congregation. “My Christian faith is very important to me in terms of being faithful to the music. It’s given me a deeper understanding of pieces like Coltrane’s ‘Dear Lord’ and ‘The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost.'”

Yet Jang adamantly contends that there is no disconnect between his faith and his politics. “I think there are aspects of Christianity that are shared with Socialism. For me, that’s the lesson of the example of Paul Robeson. It’s not a coincidence that he titled his autobiography after Martin Luther’s Here I Stand. Where you stand says everything about who you are.”

Anthony Brown is something of an anomaly within the Asian-American jazz movement; since he has a father of African-American and Choctow descent and a Japanese mother, Brown does not identify as Asian-American, per se. Because of his father’s military service, Brown lived in Japan from the age of 9 to 13. Living inside the fences of a military housing complex, enjoying privileges beyond the normal reach of a person of color in the U.S., and speaking Japanese as well as English gave Brown a unique formative perspective on being an outsider.

Yet no member of the Asian-American jazz movement has more potent insider credentials than Brown. Holding a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology, Brown is visiting assistant professor of music at UC Berkeley and an associate scholar with the Smithsonian Institution; from 1992 to 1996 he was curator of American Musical Culture and director of the Jazz Oral History Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. He has received funding from sources as varied as the Ford Foundation and the Ministry of Culture of Berlin; recently, Brown was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to overhaul “Rhapsody in Blue” for his Grammy-nominated Asian-American Orchestra.

In a nutshell, Brown argues that academic and cultural institutions are here to stay, so why not make them responsive to the times and advance the narratives and music of minority communities in the curricula and museums. “Historically, these institutions are more open than ever,” Brown says, “but it still requires someone in them to articulate the next steps and take them. When I was at the Smithsonian, it was really important for me to include George Yoshida, a member of the Music Makers in the Poston internment camp, in the Oral History program.”

Some of Yoshida’s wartime charts were featured on the Asian-American Jazz Orchestra’s Big Bands Behind Barbed Wire (Asian Improv); knowing the full story behind the songs makes their swing-era normalcy riveting. “Whether the subject is jazz, the internment or cultural assimilation and identity, George Yoshida brings an important, unique story to the table, one that had to be recorded and preserved. And the resources were there for me to do it. For better or worse, there are some things that only large institutions can do-it’s a matter of making sure they do them.

“Archie Shepp forecasted in the ’70s that jazz would be a museum music, and it has come to pass in his lifetime,” Brown says. It’s a point he knows all too well: the three concerts comprising the first East Coast tour of the Asian-American Orchestra in 2003 were at museums. “I think the process of jazz becoming museum music was well under way before Asian-Americans were let in,” Brown adds. “I don’t know if our access has been limited by the radical activist history of the Asian-American movement, but that history is known to the doorkeepers who do let us in. For that reason, I don’t think that these institutions are making jazz America’s classical music in any negative sense of the word. I think that problem lies elsewhere. The problem is that it is mainly the affluent who want jazz to be America’s classical music, and I think that determines the types of patronage jazz now receives.”

Brown maintains that the pursuit of an inclusion agenda eventually leads to the mainstream; the real bottom line is what the artist does when he gets there. Though “Rhapsody in Blue” may seem like an unlikely way to round out his trilogy, with Ellington and Strayhorn’s Far East Suite (Asian Improv) and Monk’s Moods (Keeper), Brown is giving the Gershwin work a gleaming double edge. “It is a good vehicle to make Americans understand and appreciate how the Asian experience can redefine something that’s so indelibly ingrained upon the American aesthetic consciousness. And it also plays with the stereotype that Asians can copy anything, which is something Duke Ellington even said after he was in Japan. As anyone who has driven a Japanese car knows, Asians can also improve upon American concepts, which is part of my agenda. I’m not trying to improve Ellington, Monk or Gershwin-just present it differently.”

Brown acknowledges that his current work may seem out of step with those of some of his contemporaries, but he contends that diversification is a natural outgrowth of inclusion. “What we did was fight the battle to create a collective identity and a legitimacy as Asian-Americans creating this music. It’s a battle that people, like Miya [Masaoka] and Vijay [Iyer], don’t have to fight, which frees them up to pursue other issues on a more personal basis. I think the collective identity of the Asian-American jazz movement has receded to a point, but I think it still exists and that social activist values are still at its heart. The generation coming behind us like Miya and Vijay are maintaining those values. They have that type of consciousness and are critiquing what’s going on in our country and the world today. They are very intellectually involved and engaged. It’s not just a musical endeavor.”

Vijay Iyer’s story encapsulates the cultural dynamic of an entire generation of Asian-Americans, who must reconcile the expectations of family and the insulation, if not isolation of their community, with the will to determine their own paths and the mobility of 21st-century America. The U.S.-born son of Indian immigrants, Iyer was playing the violin at three and the piano at six. Science, however, was the path Iyer was expected to pursue, and he earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in physics from Yale-where he took John Szwed’s course on postwar jazz history-and UC Berkeley, respectively. Even though jazz was a strictly extracurricular activity for Iyer during those years, he honed his affinity for Monk, Andrew Hill and other African-American pianists in the local scenes in New Haven and then the Bay Area. It was not until Iyer was ready to embark on a Ph.D. program at Berkeley that his experiences in the Oakland scene led him to a life-altering reassessment.

“That’s where I realized that the music was about community,” Iyer says. “It was about the ethos of this older African-American generation of musicians like [pianist] Ed Kelly. It made sense to me in a way that was impossible to convey in an academic context. It was an organic way of learning. That’s when I committed to experimental music. At about the same time, I came in contact with the Asian Improv community, which provided a context for coming to terms with my heritage in the framework of creative music.”

Yet Iyer did not abandon academia; he adapted it to his own ends. He enlisted composer and trombonist George Lewis, then a visiting professor at Mills College, and UC’s David Wessel to devise an interdisciplinary program that accommodated both Iyer’s physics background and his passion for African-American music. Iyer then embarked on a dissertation on the human auditory cognitive system, focusing on the role of the body in music perception and production. “It is a critique of the academic field of music perception and cognition, which treats music perception as a completely mental phenomena, which is totally antithetical to everybody’s experience of rhythm perception,” Iyer says. “Dealing with your body is vital in improvisation; there’s so much physical activity to making music. I developed a theory of embodied music cognition, drawing upon African and African-American music.”

Iyer’s academic liberation was concurrent with his music gaining traction. The mid-’90s saw the release of his first two Asian Improv CDs, Memorophilia and Architextures, which established his distinctive approach to integrating Indian music and jazz. “If you look at how Coltrane was influenced by Indian music, you see that he made harmony secondary to melody, and broke up the whole dominance of changes in the music,” Iyer says. “He made the drone the central structural element. What I wanted, as a pianist rooted in the percussive aspects of pianists like Ellington, Monk and Randy Weston, was to use rhythm as the central structural element.”

Since Iyer relocated in New York in the late ’90s, he has embarked on two collaborations with significant long-term impact potential. The first is Fieldwork, a co-op trio with two Bay Area colleagues, saxophonist Aaron Stewart and drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee. Their first Pi CD, Your Life Flashes, makes a good case for both Iyer’s assertion that rhythm is at the core of his compositions and that he can smoothly transit between materials of various cultural origins. “It’s about pushing ourselves beyond what we know,” Iyer says of the trio’s multicultural investigations. “We bring in compositions that we can’t play, initially, which are based on an idea we have found in a cultural context like West African music. In the process of trying to play this music, we stumble onto something else that’s beyond anything we were dealing with. So the ‘Field’ of Fieldwork is the vast field of music and culture, and the ‘Work’ is the work it takes to bring it out in our own way.”

As good as Fieldwork is-and it’s very good-it does not have the profound implications of Raw Materials, Iyer’s duo with alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. Though Raw Materials has yet to issue a CD, their work on Iyer’s excellent 2001 quartet album, Panoptic Modes, and the saxophonist’s equally engaging new quartet date, Black Water (both on Red Giant), has a depth of empathy well beyond their years. “Rudresh and I are part of the first generation of South Asians for whom it has been possible to play jazz with the American experience as its foundation. The question of ‘Is my music Indian enough?’ gripped me for a while. Finally I reached the point of saying ‘I am who I am’ and embraced all parts of my heritage-the ethnic side, the American side, the person of color side. I’m very inspired by my heritage and my identity, but I’m always trying to reach outside of who I am and what I know.”

The work of Miya Masaoka puts to rest any doubt about the Asian-American community’s current ability and will to challenge the inclusiveness of the jazz mainstream and to provoke the type of controversies that make liberals squirm. Like many artists whose recordings are found in the jazz bins and who perform regularly at jazz festivals, Masaoka disavows the jazz label. Despite performing with jazz artists ranging from Steve Coleman to Pharoah Sanders and recording one of the most intriguing albums of Monk tunes ever made, Monk’s Japanese Folk Song (Dizim), the bulk of her work has little to no connection to the jazz tradition beyond its use of improvisation and its inspiration in the social justice and identity issues jazz has historically championed.

Her issue-driven compositions should be considered descendants of “Strange Fruit” and “Mississippi Goddam!” Yet Masaoka doesn’t put easy-to-loathe bigots in the spotlight; instead, she focuses on American middlebrow parochialism. In “What Is the Difference Between Stripping and Playing the Violin?” Masoaka makes a discomforting equation between art and what she terms “sex work.” Inspired by the radiation-induced leukemia death of a distant Hiroshima-survivor relative, Masaoka reminds the listener not only of the U.S.’s unique stature in the use of nuclear weapons on “24,000 Years Is Forever” but also the long-term specter of hundreds of tons plutonium proliferating around the planet. (Both compositions are on a Victo CD named for the former.)

Masaoka does stray far off the jazz reservation in works like “What Is the Sound of Ten Naked Asian Men?,” which processes the bodily sounds of her prone participants, and her Bee Project, in which human musicians interact with the amplified sounds of thousands of encased bees. Additionally, her work with MIDI interfaces, infrared and ultrasound sensors and microcomputer modules places her in a sphere of activity whose epicenter is much closer to the Third Practice Electro-Acoustic Music & New Media Arts Festival than the Mary Lou Williams Festival. However, even in these zones, Masaoka’s work often addresses the American legacy of racism. Such is the case with “How to Build a Tar Paper Barrack,” a piece for tape and koto rooted in her own parents’ internment. She is an artist who performs the court music of feudal Japan and also extends the trajectory of Fluxus artists like Charlotte Moorman in works where sounds are generated by cockroaches breaking laser beams as they crawl over her nude body. To say Masaoka is beyond category would be cheeky.

Yet Masaoka’s work is not beyond explanation using just a few guidelines-primarily her family history, the tradition of the koto and the intrinsic power of being a woman-which are unified by an impetus to impart urgent messages. “Communicating a specific message of immediate importance is a big part of what we identify as music,” Masaoka says. “Birdsongs, drumming, many forms of early music-they convey a lot of life and death messages. Certain pitches and rhythms have always been given significance. This goes to the origins of the musical impulse. Improvised music still embodies these qualities and communicates them. That’s why an audience can have such a profound response that they can’t fully articulate beyond the idea of it being moving.”

How Masaoka came to such a stance initially seems inexplicable, given her early immersion in classical koto music and a ritualized performance protocol of posture, dress and makeup that, to the uninitiated, seemingly falls a step or two short of feet-binding. Yet in the 11th and 12th centuries, Masaoka says, “there were roving bands of itinerant women musicians, and I became very interested in the mythology around this lifestyle.” For Masaoka, this was the Ur-version of the feminist artistic mobility that is at the core of her own work. “Even though I was deeply involved in learning these traditions, I was still in the 20th century, affected by mass culture, commercials, pop music and Muzak. The koto was my means for creating an alternative response, because it is a great carrier of identity, both in terms of gender and ethnicity. I think of the koto very much as a body, a body lying down. It really has its own life and a soul, which is represented by a piece of wood inside it.”

Improvising on the koto was not quite a quantum leap for Masaoka, who began her musical studies on piano and taught piano improvisation for a few years while living in Paris in the ’80s. Instead, the challenge was finding an approach to improvisation that fit her instrument and sensibility. “Improvisation can mean a lot of things, depending on the tradition. Indian music, bebop-usually there is a clearly defined idiom and canons that you have to deal with,” Masaoka says. “The thing about free improvisation that I find attractive is that you can explore the sound of your instrument on its own terms and investigate its relationship to the environment in which music is made. These investigations have led me to some unusual places. I have done pieces with plants, where I place sensors on the plant that measure its physiological responses to what I do and gives data to computer interfaces, which interpret it as sound. The pieces I’ve done with plants, insects and other nonhumans have given me new ideas of approaching musicians because it poses questions like, What is the nature of consciousness?”

The recent confirmation that Hispanics have become the U.S.’s largest minority more than a decade ahead of consensus projections is just the latest indicator of the need to reassess the issue of diversity in jazz. Undoubtedly, the thorny issue of aesthetic ownership will again be debated with urgency, if not venom. It is an issue that is as ironic as it moot. The historical preeminence of African-Americans in jazz is thoroughly and permanently codified, yet neither this articulation or the ongoing flow of funds from public and philanthropic sources have diminished the barriers and challenges currently facing African-American jazz creativity. These problems are symptomatic of the ongoing demographic shifts that will leave no one group setting jazz’s future agenda. The reality is that an increasingly diverse population will proclaim, This Is Our Music. In this regard, the manner in which the Asian-American jazz movement has done so is instructive.

Originally Published