Bassist Tatsu Aoki On Asian American Jazz

Miyumi Project. i i

Tatsu Aoki's Miyumi Project combines Taiko drums with bass and woodwinds. Aoki is the bassist on the right. courtesy of the artist hide caption

itoggle caption courtesy of the artist
Miyumi Project.

Tatsu Aoki's Miyumi Project combines Taiko drums with bass and woodwinds. Aoki is the bassist on the right.

courtesy of the artist

This weekend in Chicago, the Midwest chapter of Asian Improv aRts is putting on its 14th Annual Chicago Asian American Jazz Festival. Over three days, artists like Jeff Chan, Francis Wong and Jeff Parker will appear on stage, along with several other lesser-known ensembles led by or featuring Asian Americans.

Bassist Tatsu Aoki is the executive director of Asian Improv aRts Midwest, as well as the founder and artistic director of the Chicago Asian American Jazz Festival. Born to an artistic family in Japan, he's long held interests in experimental filmmaking and experimental music. As a jazz performer, he plays the double bass, and also incorporates his work on shamisen and Taiko drums into his music.

As my surname might suggest, I myself am Thai-American, and I've always been interested in the perspectives of fellow Asian Americans who have dedicated their lives to jazz and improvised music. Asian Americans have experienced many different paths in this music, but the specific framework of "Asian American Jazz" has been particularly meaningful for a sizeable group of musicians since the late 1970s. A 2001 NPR report by Reese Ehrlich, aired on the now-defunct Weekly Edition, provides a good introduction to the idea:

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Aoki has long subscribed to the movement's tenets, and with the 14th anniversary of his festival afoot, I thought it an appropriate time to ask him about it. Over the phone, I interviewed Aoki about the utility and intent of an Asian American jazz festival:

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Why have a specifically Asian American jazz festival?

One of the reasons is that we, as a community of Asian Americans — one is to break off the stereotype of what we have in the society. Because we, at Asian Improv aRts, both at San Francisco and in Chicago, have a distinct gallery of sound that is employed by all of our artists that are Asian Americans. Some rooted music of our Asian heritage, or Asian American originality, is very different from other types of music. Many years ago, we decided to name this Asian American jazz.

Of course, the frontier of this movement came from a lot of artists from the Bay Area: People like Jon Jang, Mark Izu, Miya Masaoka, Glenn Horiuchi, Anthony Brown and many others in the Bay Area. I had the opportunity to collaborate with the Bay Area artists in the early '90s, and I joined the organization Asian Improv aRts, and expanded that operation to the Midwest. In Chicago, we started the [Asian American Jazz] Festival 14 years ago. After this year's festival, we have the 15th year anniversary, which is in 2010.

Why do you think it is important to have an artistic community centered around the idea of Asian American-ness?

I think one of the reasons [is that] we all agree: In society — not just in this musical community — in many cases that Asian Americans are excluded, or maybe Asian American something is not really paid attention to much by the majority of society. So it's important to initiate this circle: To keep us going, and present art from our communities.

If you look at the major, mainstream festivals, our question is: How often do you see one of us represented? So I think it's important to have this festival, so that we make sure that some of our people who are doing wonderful work are consistently presented within the community, as well as for people outside the community.

So let me present an idea to you. Jazz and improvised music has this general idea that the bandstand is colorblind — that it doesn't really matter who you are, or where you come from, as long as you can get up on stage and say something meaningful. Have you experienced this to be true, in your own playing?

Oh, I think so. I think creatively and artistically, that's very true. We also agree that creatively and artistically, we bring in our own heritage into these wonderful collaborations. But I think, aside from the content: One, the reason that we're calling this Asian American music, or Asian American jazz, is that we're basing our artistic venture with our Asian American experience. So I think that is a specific agenda, but I think artistic collaboration is, like you said, colorless.

Except now we get into who's presenting our work: Then I think our equal opportunity theory doesn't work, because we generally feel like we're not being presented well by mainstream events. So that's the part where we decided to organize our own festival.

Tatsu Aoki.

Tatsu Aoki. courtesy of the artist hide caption

itoggle caption courtesy of the artist

So my next question was: off the stage, do you feel like being Asian or Asian American affects the way other people look at you as an artist? Does it affect media coverage, or how people experience your work?

Yea. I think it's all connected to our Asian American experience, which is — you know, I don't want to get too much into a racial discussion, but I do think we are a minority community, and we have a lot of disadvantage being a part of the Asian American community. Especially, I would say: [the] Asian American community is different than the Asian [community]. In many cases, the general public welcomes foreign guests, so to speak. But there is less appreciation to the Asian American diaspora in the society. And we feel that we need to reinforce that idea, so everybody understands that there are specific experiences and specific ethnic identities for Asian Americans that are a little bit different from Asians in Asia.

So you're emphasizing the American part of Asian American.

Right. Because we're really viewed many times as foreigners. Any of the bad jokes coming from where you're from — all the Chinaman jokes — that's really based on the fact that you're still a foreigner. And we sometimes feel that we do not earn equal citizenship as members of the community. And that was basically the origin of the [Asian American] movement, both in arts and the social movement in the '80s. At least with my organization.

This whole notion of Asian American jazz is a very expansive one. I know you're originally from Japan, and incorporate a lot of Japanese sounds and concepts into your art. As a point of comparison, take a third-generation hapa person who happens to have attended, say, Juilliard and is primarily interested in straight-ahead jazz. Is there value in calling that Asian American jazz too?

Well, it depends on how you identify with the concept of Asian American music. With the Asian American arts organization that we are continuing, people always are all about art reflecting some of the influences of their origins. You know, in New York, we have people like Rudresh Mahanthappa who are doing real hip, you know funky, nice jazz, but it's really embedded in other parts of the world, like his [parent's] origins. Vijay Iyer, also. Miya Masaoka's work always had something to do with Asian American ethnicity. So I think it's a very specific idea.

And it's really different from someone who does not associate that musical experience to Asian American origins. Which is fine, too. But I think there's a difference between performing and believing Asian American arts, or Asian Americans performing some form of art. And I think it's the same with Francis Wong's work, or Jon Jang's work, or Fred Ho in New York — all those great artists have that agenda incorporated into whatever they are doing.

There's this other thing — you were talking about Rudresh Mahanthappa, and Vijay Iyer, and Miya Masaoka — from my casual reading of musicians who sometimes identify with this Asian American aesthetic, a relatively large percentage are into "avant-garde" forms.

Right right right. I think it's a very inevitable thing: You are interested in what is happening in American society, and also you're trying to find the roots of the origin, and you have this really interesting music and sound. In my case, it's a lot of Japanese folkloric music that I grew up with. In Chicago, we have some blues musicians like Yoko Noge, who's basically a Chicago boogie-woogie blues singer, but she does a lot of Japanese folk songs in that style. You know, Francis Wong also has Chinese influences, Jon Jang is the same way. And all these great artists have all that mixture of that same culture — two, three or more cultures.

Right. Though what I was trying to get to is that a lot of these artists tend to be into — I don't know, at least in the accepted way of looking at it — the more progressive bent to their work.

I think people especially like Miya Masaoka, who is really a member of the original Asian American jazz movement coming from the Bay Area — looking at the work of Miya, Jon Jang, Francis Wong, Glenn Horiuchi, they were very, very new at the time incorporating all these different sounds and instruments. And I think that's why they were identified as progressive and avant-garde, because they really didn't know what to call that.

If you look at the early releases of Asian Improv Records, there's so much of a Asian instruments, and spoken word, and dances, and all that stuff. It's kind of like AACM in Chicago, and I think definitely that would be categorized as a progressive or avant-garde. Today, I think we can say that particular style or idea to be Asian American music. I don't necessarily like the term "Asian American jazz," but I think that many years ago, it was very self-explanatory for a lot of people to identify with. You know, when we were asked, "What kind of music is this?" We'd say, "Well, you know, it's a jazz and progressive improvisation, but it's Asian American." And [that's why] I think "Asian American jazz" was named.

Do you yourself see any parallel between this art form developed by African Americans, and—

Yes. My musical experiences in Chicago are all collaborations between African American musicians. If you look at my discography, I played with a lot of AACM people!

Yes, I know you've worked closely with Fred Anderson and others ...

Yea, yea. So I think the live experience and also the musical experience — I think [there are] a lot of collaborations with African American musicians. And Glenn Horiuchi had a relationship with Leo Smith in L.A., and all these Chicago musicians who went to the West Coast often hooked up with Asian American musicians. You know, people like Jon Jang have played with Max Roach, and all that stuff is really — I think we share that musical folklore concept with a lot of African American musicians.

Anything else on your mind about Asian Americans and jazz?

Well, I think it's great that people like you guys are kind of interested in reviving this particular category of this music. [Ed. Note: I didn't mean to suggest to Aoki that I was interested in "reviving" Asian American jazz — just interested in covering it at large.] Because we think we have something distinctive about our experience that's coming out in the music. And for us, it's the 15th year starting from original Bay Area musicians — their original festival back there.

And today, I think a younger generation of musicians in Los Angeles just started an Asian American Jazz Festival. Interestingly enough, I don't think they really knew about this whole 20-some years of history by Bay Area artists or Chicago artists, but they decided to do this festival. And I think it's really interesting how that diaspora of a new generation are identifying themselves as an Asian American jazz festival. I did talk to them a little bit, and I think Jon Jang and Francis Wong also communicated with the organizers there in L.A. I think it's wonderful that we can do all that stuff.

Asian Improv Records — we have about 80 releases. It's a small label, but I think we captured great documentation. I think people like Vijay and Miya Masaoka — they all had one or two pieces with us in the past, with our label. So I think it's really wonderful that we're continuing this label in some way — indirectly or directly — I think it's really wonderful.

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The 14th Chicago Asian American Jazz Festival ends this Saturday at the Velvet Lounge.

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