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John Chin on Being an Asian-American Jazz Musician

The pianist muses on racism and the challenge of indifference

John Chin
John Chin (photo: Mara Chin)

In the wake of the March 16 shooting in Atlanta that killed eight people, violence against Asians hit the top of the news cycle. It had been ramping up for months as more and more Asians were (and are) being attacked across the country. It’s not a new story, by any means, but I’d never seen it reach the American consciousness as prevalently as it did that week. However, I felt like the narrative that the news was conveying didn’t represent my story or my state of mind.

I don’t think about being Asian. My identity is not defined by my ethnicity. The only time I think about it is when I’m faced with it—either positively, like when we’re celebrating culture, or negatively, like when I’m faced with some sort of racism. Or, in this case, when it hits the media. I found it unnerving that a narrative was taking shape to reflect the broad spectrum of people that were to be considered Asian. I didn’t want another set of misunderstandings to take over the conversation. One set was enough.

My experiences coming up on the jazz scene in New York are not unique: You practice, you write, you make friends, you hit the scene, you play a few gigs (hoping for better ones), you have roommates, you try and make ends meet, and you search for your own voice. It’s a challenge to persevere, even under the best circumstances. But the payoff is in the playing, the music, and the camaraderie. I rarely encountered or felt racism around me when I was among musicians, but when I did, it would surprise me. I’ve always felt that I’d been respected by my peers for my musicianship and artistry. There is, after all, a legacy of inclusion among jazz musicians, when it comes to race.

But at the same time, I had to say something about who I was as an Asian-American jazz musician. I wanted to speak out about who we are. I wanted people to know some of the challenges we face, and also encourage people to acknowledge our story in this community—this jazz community. So, on social media, in light of these recent events, I wrote the following words:

“I fought to be here. Sometimes I had to be tough. I learned that from my mother: She was a Korean immigrant who crossed the 38th parallel in her childhood, became an American citizen, and raised me as a single mother in Los Angeles in the ’80s. That’s one tough lady, folks. I’m certainly one of the lucky ones and it’s a miracle that I’d made it this far.

“When you think of a jazz musician, what do you see? I can most certainly guess that it’s not me. Not someone that looks like me, anyway. But here I am. I made it. I’m fulfilling my dream of being a professional jazz musician. Being a jazz musician makes you the underdog, for sure. And being an Asian-American jazz musician … well, let’s just say that there are more stars in the NBA than guys like me.

“And every day, I thank my lucky stars. I’m deeply appreciative of the people who have supported me over the years. People that believed in me. People that have hired me, encouraged me, and offered me opportunities. People that liked the way I sound and appreciate my artistry. People that see me as an artist, a musician, a human. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for them and my heart is filled with gratitude.

“There are unique challenges I face; prejudices; preconceived ideas. Many people think I’m a foreigner. I’m not. Hateful people tell me to ‘go back to my country.’ In Korea, I’m perceived as an American, and they’re right. By all accounts, I’m 100% American. Yet to many, I’m a constant foreigner.

“But the biggest challenge I face is not hate, but indifference. So many people are indifferent about the Asian community. Objectification of a person is the indifference to a person’s humanity, after all. For an artist, indifference is death. And death was the result of a killer’s indifference toward the humanity of those poor women and families that day.

“I ask that you see the Asian people around you. See our humanity. See the Asian jazz musicians and listen to their work. They’ve all fought hard to get to wherever they are, and it’s been an uphill battle for every single one of them. Support them. Acknowledge them. See an Asian person not as your sidekick, but your friend. Not your cook, but your brother. Not cute, but your colleague. Not your masseuse, but someone’s mother. Many of those women killed were exactly that.

“Thank you for listening and, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for your support.”

 

John Chin is a Grammy-nominated pianist and composer who has lived in New York City since 1998. He has released four albums as a leader; his latest release, a joint effort with singer/songwriter Richard Julian, is Anything Mose!, a tribute to Mose Allison.

John Chin

John Chin is a Grammy-nominated pianist and composer who has lived in New York City since 1998. He has released four albums as a leader; his latest release, a joint effort with singer/songwriter Richard Julian, is Anything Mose!, a tribute to Mose Allison.