Beijing International Jazz Festival, Beijing China
by Jason Kao Hwang for JAZZIZ Magazine, 1997
At the Beijing airport, the landscape of body rhythms made an immediate impression on me. The angle, sway and spirit of motions were present in a distinctly Chinese manner, corresponding to every face, the shape of each smile and wrinkle. The splash of wordless Chinese sounds - laughter, coughing, and vocalized pauses - punctuated the environment. These sounds struck me as familiar, as if I were home.
Officially, I was traveling as a Chinese American violinist/composer, leading the Far East Side Band Korean-born Sang-won Park (kayagum, ajang voice), African American Joe Daley (tuba, electronics), and Japanese-born Yukio Tsuji (percussion, shakuhachi) at last November 's Beijing International Jazz Festival. Pianist Jon Jang and I were the first Asian-American musicians ever to perform at the festival. We 're both American-born and speak very little Chinese. (Growing up as one of only two Chinese families in Waukegan, Illinois, at time when bilingual households were discouraged, my parents decided it would be best for me to learn primarily English).
The Beijing International Jazz Festival was first organized in 1993 by the Beijing branch of the German Goethe Institute, the China International Culture Exchange Center, and private supporters. This year, artists were lodged at the Poly Plaza Hotel, scene of a serious 24-hour hang that afforded a chance to meet and play with artists from literally all over the world. As I was also playing with Lithuanian drummer Vladamir Tarasov's Ensemble of New Improvised Music, I spent time with Peter Veale (oboe, New Zealand/Germany), Andreas Schreiber (violin, Austria), Dieter Glawichnigh (piano), Germany) and special guest Wang Yong (guzheng).I also met playwright Xu Ying and the Chinese opera performer and scholar Fan Xin, neither one associated with the festival. One evening, I hopped on a bike behind Xu Ying for a thrill-ride through fierce traffic to the Beijing Opera. It was only a tourist show, featuring excerpts from the classics, but I could see and hear through this live performance, as never before, how the opera characters ' stage movements and the bangu (wood drum) phrase are unified as flow of powerful gestures, and how the jing hu (soprano violin) rises above the orchestra to play in unison with the vocalists.
During the week, I met my mother 's two brothers Uncle Mao and Uncle Tse for dinner at Mao 's apartment. Both spoke fairly good English and were quite warm toward me. They showed me photos of my parents, pre-World War II, before they left for America, and 40 year 's worth of post-War photos of family members I didn 't know, and whose names I could barely pronounce (let alone remember).
Hanging out with my uncles ' families was wonderful, but I also felt a tremendous sense of lost history, of displacement. One of my motivations for playing music has been to find this "home" within the sound a place where culture, family, language, and instincts would be congruent with my spirit. I know now that music is where this home exists.
The audiences at the festival were roughly half Western and half Chinese. The 1,400-seat Poly Plaza Theater, upholstered in purple, is one of Beijing 's most modern theaters. I felt good about the Far East Side Band concert. We played our repertoire with imagination and premiered a new piece with fluency. Based upon post-gig feedback from other musicians, it seemed the more hip, Westernized portion of the Chinese audience enjoyed us. But a conservative segment of the Chinese audience was simply closed.
Perhaps both the modernism of our music and mixed ethnicity of ourband impeded them from hearing the music openly. John Jang 's sextet played a beautiful set, which was well received by a larger portion of the audience. However, part of the Chinese audience still remained closed; perhaps the presence of the erhu or the jazz interpretation of Chinese melodies was perceived as a violation of tradition. (If the Far East Side Band ruffled more feathers, we 'll wear that as our bade of honor!)
A young music critic, Hu Hai Tao, came up to say he 'd dug the Far East Side Band 's set, that our music and the festival as a whole made him realize that in Chinese society, people are taught to solve a problem in the same way, not in their own way a simple statement with huge implications. He proceeded to describe how the traditional arts are generally considered backwards, impeding progress. I was left wondering why traditions are not re-invigorated for contemporary expression.
During one of the festival 's mater classes at the Central Conservatoryof Music, I found myself debating the validity of the art of improvisation with the largely conservative students. " Go beyond the music of the Far East Side Band," I exhorted them, "or travel in a completely different direction, but create music with an individual voice!"
I told the students that neither Chinese composers nor anyone else will find deepest expression in imitation, that inspiration is what moves tradition forward. Jazz is defined by a spirit of individualism, not a set of structures. Asian American expression differs because of our unique history. Our instincts have their own forms and colors. Perhaps this workshop was more important than the concert.
Afterwards, the band dined with composition professors Yang Qingand Gao Weiji. We had acquaintances in common: Gao Weijie was a classmate of composer Bright Sheng, now in the States, and they knew composer Tan Dun. Both professors are scholars, but neither has heard the music of Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, or Anthony Braxton. It hasn 't been available in China.
Since 1993, the Beijing International Jazz Festival has introduced awealth of jazz to Chinese audiences. This year, China 's own Golden Angle Jazz Band performed big band standards conducted by Dieter Glawichnig; the Wide Angle Jazz Group led by saxophonist Du Yinjiao, played original jazz-rock fusion. The Doky Brothers brought the funk, the William Breuker Kollectief produced slapstick with superb musicianship, and Betty Carter shared her inimitable elegance. Jang 's Sextet created rich jazz versions of enduring Chinese folk themes, and my set with Vladamir Tarasov 's Ensemble of New Improvised Music took off in exciting new directions. Each night, there were capacity audiences, and everything I heard sounded great.
Back at Newark 's Airport, it was startling to hear English again. Waiting for my luggage, I watched some Chinese people from my flight gather a few feet away. Their Chinese words rang through the overflowing din. They stood out from the crowd, too not just the style of their clothes or hair, but their body language. The air took a different shape around them. I thought of my parents ' struggle in America. I thought about music.
Before the festival, I had composed Chinese source music for Martin Scorcese 's film Kundun. Shortly after, I began a Meet the Composer-sponsored residency in New York City 's Chinatown. Music has provided me with true inspirations, offering wondrous experiences in just the right order. I 'm grateful.
The Far East Side Band was truly honored to perform in the Beijing International Jazz Festival. I believe China should know the artists of its Diaspora, to learn about our cultural evolution. We, in turn, can learn much from China 's artists. Let our ideas merge, clash, and grow!
Jason Kao Hwang