Jon Jang always has his eye on history. The San Francisco pianist and composer has spent the past three decades creating jazz-infused works that celebrate, commemorate or comment on pivotal moments in the struggle for social justice, often from a radical political perspective. But Jang isn’t averse to making history himself, whether its serving as the fulcrum in the Beijing Trio, a singular Sino-jazz summit with legendary drummer Max Roach and erhu virtuoso Jiebing Chen, or co-founding Asian Improv Records, a label that’s documented the creative charged Asian-American jazz movement.
He celebrates the release of his latest album, The Pledge of Black Asian Allegiance (Asian Improv) on Wednesday at the California Jazz Conservatory. A body of music dedicated to Malcolm X and Yuri Kochiyama, the project introduces his new Jon Jangtet featuring Berkeley High graduate Hitomi Oba on tenor saxophone, trombonist Nick DePinna, bassist Lisa Mezzacappa, and percussionist Deszon X. Claiborne. The concert is part of the Wednesday CJC series presented by the fair-pay-for-musicians organization Jazz In the Neighborhood, and it’s entirely fitting that that date falls on Juneteenth.
“What I learned from Amiri Baraka, Max Roach and Horace Tapscott is that black music is a form of resistance,” Jang says. The concert’s program embodies the frontline position staked out by generations of jazz artists, starting with Charles Mingus’ “Meditations on Integration,” an epic piece that the bassist documented on the classic live album Mingus at Monterey from 1964 Monterey Jazz Festival.
The Jangtet also draws from the Asian Improv catalog with saxophonist and label co-founder Francis Wong’s composition “Prayer For Melvin Truss,” a mournful piece written in response to the 1985 shooting of an unarmed 17-year-old African-American youth by a San Jose police officer. Jang recorded it on the album that launched Asian Improv back in 1987, The Ballad Or The Bullet? (Dedicated To Thelonious Monk And Malcolm X). “Francis’s first recorded composition is a Black Lives Matter work,” Jang notes.
Over the years Jang has created an extensive body of original compositions and arrangements of traditional Chinese melodies, but his legacy is equally defined as mentor for some of the most significant improvisers to come out of the Bay Area in recent decades, including vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Jen Shyu, composer and sound artist Miya Masaoka, and pianist, composer and MacArthur “Genius” Fellow Vijay Iyer, who was studying for a PhD in physics at UC Berkeley in the early 1990s when he realized that music was his true calling.
Iyer has often spoken about how his aesthetic vision was shaped by his early encounters with Asian Improv, “seeing jazz musicians who were connecting with their Asian ancestry,” he says. “It sort of all made sense to me finally, that I could really be myself inside this music and that could be valued.”
Jang has played a similar role with Oba, though they didn’t connect when she was playing in the Berkeley High jazz band. She’d graduated from UCLA, where she’s now on faculty leading several ensembles, and ended up performing one of his pieces at an Asian American jazz festival in Los Angeles. Flutist/composer James Newton, an early collaborator with Jang, suggested she start playing with him and the relationship has profoundly shaped her creative development.
“I consider Jon an important mentor,” Oba says. “Not just musically, but how you go about being a musician, how to make creative music happen in the world, and how that ties into the world. He and Francis Wong have been doing it for so long. Jon is so much about concept too. I think there’s a still a lot to learn as a mature as a person. Musically I’m learning so much too from his lineage of music. It’s so deep.”
Beyond his own projects, Jang has worked in an amazing variety of contexts in Berkeley alone. The Pacific Film Archive commissioned him to write a score for Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s classic 1929 Soviet silent film The Arsenal and the Berkeley Rep commissioned a score for its dramatic adaptation of Maxine Hong Kingston’s novel The Woman Warrior. Cal Performances and the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis commissioned Jang and James Newton to compose When Sorrow Turns to Joy, a piece exploring spiritual parallels in the lives of the African-American singer and activist Paul Robeson and Chinese opera star Mei Lanfang.
For Jang, music involves both a search for identity, and the struggle for social justice. Along with a brother and sister, Jang was raised by his mother in Palo Alto after his father’s death in a plane crash. Growing up in a community with few other Chinese around, he felt disconnected for his heritage. He started studying piano relatively late, at 19, and after dropping out of Cal he landed a full scholarship to Oberlin. “In a sad sense I always feel like I’m searching for my roots or the meaning of life,” Jang says. “Not being rooted in any tradition or religion, not having a connection to my ancestors, I developed an eclectic kind of language.”
Jang first started making connections between his music and his politics when he was a union activist working at Stanford and met Francis Wong. Along with musicians such as pianist Glenn Horiuchi, saxophonist Fred Ho and bassist Mark Izu, Jang was part of a generation of Asian Americans who converged around the movement to obtain reparations for Japanese Americans interned during World War II.
It wasn’t until the late ‘80s though that Jang began exploring Chinese music. While teaching citizenship classes in San Francisco’s Chinatown, he was asked by future-Board of Supervisors member Mabel Tang to perform at a Chinese Progressive Association function. But Tang wanted the pianist to play some traditional Chinese music, something he was almost entirely unfamiliar with.
“I had no access to the music but somehow I was able to find the music to ‘The Butterfly Lovers Song,’ and that was doable, to just perform the melody,” Jang recalls. “So I played it at a restaurant in Chinatown. It was a typical banquet kind of thing, and the waiters started singing along to the piece. That was the beginning of taking these Chinese folk songs and making them my own.”