Asian American Jazz

When examining the Asian American role in making jazz music, we turned to both Fred Ho’s written analyses (“What Makes “Jazz” The Revolutionary Music Of The Twentieth Century, And Will It Be Revolutionary For The Twenty-first Century?”, “Asian American Music And Empowerment: Is There A Such Thing As ‘Asian American Jazz’”, “Kreolization And The Hybridity Of Resistance Vs. Cultural Imperialism”) and his music, specifically the albums Underground Railroad of My Heart and Celestial Green Monster.

Ho argues to understand jazz, one has to understand its history –– jazz music came from working class African Americans as a way to gain agency against an imperialist system designed to keep them down (“What…”, 94). Thus, this music is a true American art form, but not American as many have come to understand it (meaning white), but as the “music of an American oppressed nationality” (“What…”, 91). But although jazz was created through the struggles of a minority group not widely accepted in hegemonic society, in today’s Eurocentric and capitalist American society, it has been appropriated and absorbed into the highest circles of the dominant culture (“Kreolization…”, 117). This is false kreolization, this assimilation with oppressor culture; true kreolization is the free co-mingling of oppressed cultures to forge a common bond.

So, when any oppressed minority group plays jazz with a deep respect and understanding of history and struggle, real jazz music is made (“real” meaning jazz music not from the dominant culture) (“Kreolization…”, 120). But, no matter how rooted in respect the music is, in an already niche genre, it can be extremely difficult for Asian Americans to gain footing; on one hand, it’s seen as “black music,” and on the other, white artists and consumers have co-opted it as their own. As a direct result of this, many “Asian American players and groups were imitations of the commercially popular jazz and dance bands, making no distinctive or unique artistic contribution” (“Asian American Music…”, 212). Without the necessary economic or political power at both a national and local level, Asian Americans find it difficult to spread their jazz, as there are simply no institutions to fund it (“Asian American Music…”, 217).

While other genres such as hip hop use direct words and phrases to send a message, jazz relies on its meter, instrument choice, improvisation, etc to enact social change, as “every feature is an expression of revolutionary dialectics. Demarcations are dissolved between … ‘artist’ and ‘audience’; … between ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’” (“What…”, 96). When Ho plays, he’s playing for both himself and an audience: through songs such as “Spiderman Theme”, “Auld Lang Syne” and “An Bayan Ko (for My Country)” we see a playfulness come out. Being an Asian American and making classically white American songs jazzy, a black art form, Ho pokes fun at the cultural hegemony he operates in by making those songs his, and thus wedging his way into white American culture. Coupled with songs that take a more political stance, with titles in Asian languages and ones that are dedicated to “The Struggle for a New World Suite,” (Celestial Green Monster), there really is no one way to curate a work of jazz. In fact, if one were to try and essentialize jazz music into some type of formula, would suffocate the essence of jazz itself as a dynamic, living document of the oppressed.

fred ho2
Graphic by Sarah Zhang

And yet, many try to force Asian American into the label of  “fusion” music (“Asian American Music…”, 213). The issue with this label is that it denies the authenticity and originality that some Asian American jazz musicians are striving to achieve through a conscious understanding of Asian American music as a continuum between the traditional and contemporary; instead, it compares it to trite and demeaning “Chop Suey”-esque music –– “Asian” music made palatable for a white audience.

In his album Underground Railroad to My Heart, Lan Hua Hua (blue flower)” is a perfect example of this continuum. Ho took Guo Lanying’s “Blue Flower (lan hua hua)“, a classic Chinese folk song, and made it into jazz. At first listen, the instrument that kicks off the song sounds like a trumpet, or perhaps a saxophone, but when it’s used in certain moments, it mimics the warble of a more traditional Asian instrument. It then becomes very traditional, as all instruments cease, and operatic singing is all that’s left, until, once more, it transitions again into smooth jazz music only, then, for the final minute or so, both come together. “Kang Ding Love Song” follows in a similar path; there are traditional jazz percussion instruments laid underneath a traditional sounding flute and more operatic singing reminiscent of a Chinese opera. The use of both contemporary and traditional forms of music demonstrates the understanding of the Asian American as the bridge between the two, so it cannot be labeled “fusion,” as Ho argues that as long as Asian American artists strive for fresh expression and creative excellence with an honest intent to create music that keeps heritage (both of Asians and African Americans) in mind, “the more American will be its significance,” and the more American, the more authentic the jazz is (“Asian American Music…”, 215).

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