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Label Watch: Asian Improv Records

When pianist Jon Jang and saxophonist Francis Wong founded their own record label in 1987, San Francisco-based Asian Improv Records, they were taking the plunge into the entrepreneurial world with the same basic motivation as most independent musicians-to sidestep the mainstream gatekeepers and get their music heard. “We weren’t getting acknowledged by existing record labels,” says Wong, who serves as AIR’s director and chief spokesman, “so in order to have a voice and be recognized by folks who would be interested in the message that we carried in our work, we created this company.”

But what made AIR different from the outset was the message. Jang, pianist Glenn Horiuchi and saxophonist Fred Ho, the first musicians recorded on the label, played jazz inspired by Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Duke Ellington, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and other giants of hard bop and the avant garde. But they had more on their minds than music: Their art was rooted in the political milieu of the times, and inseparable from the social causes that inspired them to express themselves through music. “During the ’80s there was a resurgence in Asian American consciousness,” Wong explains. “Many of us were involved in the campaign for redress and reparations for Japanese Americans, the movement for justice for Vincent Chin [a young Chinese American murdered in Detroit] and Jesse Jackson’s campaign. A lot of us wrote music to play at events and benefits, but we weren’t getting any recognition in the American music scene.”

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