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A Conversation with
Jon Jang and Francis Wong

10th Anniversary of Asian Improv

Part 1 - Founding an Independent Recording Label

San Francisco, California

Jon Jang & Francis WongThis in-depth conversation with composers / musicians Jon Jang and Francis Wong marks the 10th anniversary of the founding of the independent recording label Asian Improv. Asian Improv has issued over thirty recordings by such artists as Francis Wong, Jon Jang, Glenn Horiuchi, Miya Masaoka, Jeff Song, Mark Izu, Genny Lim, and many others. The interview is in five parts and covers a wide scope of topics ranging from the reasons why these composers started their own recording label; how that label has grown; how Asian Improv related to the Asian American Consciousness Movement; multiculturalism; politics, music and spirituality; music and everyday life; and the composers' tracing of their musical histories and compositions. Interview and photos by In Motion Magazine publisher Nic Paget-Clarke.

Part 2 - Cultural Synthesis - A Global International Context
Part 3 - The Legacy of Overcoming Obstacles
Part 4 - We want to bring our culture to people in our music
Part 5 - The recordings of Jon Jang and Francis Wong

Founding an Independent Recording Label

In Motion Magazine: What inspired you to found Asian Improv?

Francis Wong: To me, what we were doing was continuing the process of being in the tradition of self-produced artists. While there was no profound, earth-shattering inspiration, it was part of continuing that process where rather than waiting to be signed by a major label, you put the records out your self, creating your own kind of motion. We saw it as a form of self-determination.

Jon Jang - The Ballad or the Bullet?
Jon Jang: The first Asian Improv recording was The Ballad or the Bullet? by the 4-in-One Quartet, a quartet made up of Francis, James Lewis on bass, Eddie Moore on drums and myself. My first two recordings before that were on RPM. Jang in 1982, and Are You Chinese or Charlie Chan which was recorded in 1983 and released in March of 1984.

In the early 1980s with RPM, producing recordings for somebody like myself at that age, it seemed like there was a three year gap between The Ballad or the Bullet? and Are You Chinese or Charlie Chan? although it was less.

I really wanted to record. The first recording, Jang, was a collaboration with United Front. The second recording was a collaboration with members of United Front, and I guess what's significant about that was it was distinctively the Asian American creative music movement.

Francis Wong: RPM was the label for the band United Front. It was the label they had created to be a vehicle for their recordings. The self-produced approach has a long tradition in creative music, in jazz - from Strata East that was run by African American musicians; to Debut Records, Max Roach and Charles Mingus' label; to Sun Ra who had his own label.

Jon Jang: In the late '60s there was the Black Artists Group out of St. Louis. And in 1965, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM) was founded in Chicago. AACM was founded by, led by, and created for African American artists.

Francis Wong: The idea is creating the work, producing it yourself, and trying to have some independence. We didn't really have a choice because we were excluded and disenfranchised. We needed to have something. It's not like Jon could make a recording and then automatically have an outlet for his work. He had to create that vehicle for himself so we collaborated together to form Asian Improv.

Jon Jang: In 1987, RPM Records was no longer around and we needed a record label to make a record. It wasn't that we had a long term plan, that Francis and I sat down and said "Well let's start a record label." It was just that I hadn't recorded in a while and I wanted to develop a regular group.

So we started a record label. We named it Asian Improv Records because Brian Auerbach, who wrote some of our liner notes, described the movement as Asian American Improvised Music. We took "Asian Improvised," and with the popularity of acronyms, "AIR" seemed to somehow fit. (There was a group in Chicago called Air that I enjoyed a lot.) AIR, Asian Improv Records was how we named the label. There's nothing really more than that in terms of the inspiration.

Not too much to do with being artists

In Motion Magazine: What were some of the first difficulties you had to overcome in putting it together?

Jon Jang: I relate this to independent filmmakers. They say the hardest part is distribution. Although there are some companies that distribute this music, there's the difficulty of getting to a wider audience. Then there's the difficulty of getting paid. The problem of being self-produced is at times we've had to follow up on distribution, and actually function as a bill collector.

Francis Wong: That's the dilemma of running your own label. You end up doing things that have not too much to do with being artists. In the early years, and it continues today, we had to figure out how to do the business in a way that made sense. You can be pretty detailed about trying to follow up on all the little stores you sell consignments to. That can be a real drain on time.

I think a major question in the early years was gaining the proper perspective on what we were actually doing with the label. As time went by we got less caught up in the details of every last inventory and dealt with the label more as a creative and expressive outlet for our work. We emphasized the need to get the publicity, to shape the perspective, to do things that got our presence out there, through concerts, and touring.

The Asian American Consciousness Movement

In Motion Magazine: What were some of the early successes that made you know you were on the right track?

Francis Wong: In some ways we have to go to pre-Asian Improv to look at that. Jon, tell your story about the APSU (Asian Pacific Student Union) conference.

Jon Jang: Are You Chinese or Charlie Chan? was released in March, 1984, on the very day of a large APSU conference. The ensemble that performed on the recording performed at APSU. We sold about 60 records at the conference. Students were asking me to autograph the record. There was a tremendous response. We also had other successful events organized by East Wind Magazine.

Francis Wong: I think it's politics. The period in which we emerged, '84, '85, '86, and '87 when we finally formed Asian Improv, those were the years of Jesse Jackson's first run for president. It was the years of the Vincent Chin campaign (publisher: the Vincent Chin campaign sought justice for the murder of Vincent Chin by two laid-off Detroit autoworkers who mistook Vincent Chin for a Japanese person. This racist attack was part of the U.S. backlash against Japan for their success in auto sales). It was the years of the fight against the Simpson-Mazzoli bill (see Interview with Roberto Martinez). '82 -'88 were the key years of the Redress and Reparations movement (the movment to win redress and reparations for the U.S. government incarceration in concentration camps of Japanese Americans during World War II.), ending in '88 with the presidential signing. '84-'88 were high-water marks for the Asian American consciousness movement. I think that was the context for the formation of an Asian American music label.

We were seen as trying to help build a new front for the Asian movement by having this record label. Our collaborations with East Wind magazine, our playing at Vincent Chin benefits and at a lot of other community events made it a very successful and active time.

We were trying to be active with our music and trying to identify with the Asian American consciousness movement. It was a very positive period. If it wasn't for that time we would not have been moved to create a lot of the work in the context that we did, with the content and substance that it had. We wouldn't have been moved to create an organization or vehicle if it wasn't for that political context.

For example, we're sitting here in Cameron House doing this interview, and this was where we were in '82 for Vincent Chin. There was a short ceremony and then we left and had a procession around Chinatown. There was a tremendous outpouring of grief as well as anger about what had happened toVincent Chin. As artists trying to take in what was happening around us and express it, it was a time for individual expression and also a time for collective expression.

It was a fairly intense and pretty remarkable period of history for Asian Americans. While it was a very humble beginning in the sense that we were just trying to get a label for Jon's next record, at the same time we were growing into a space that was being created by thousands of people who wanted to take action.

Re-definition and transition after 1988

Jon Jang & the Pan Asian Arkestra -- Never Give Up!Jon Jang: The Redress and Reparations movement was a civil rights victory for the 1980s. One of the first major works after Are You Chinese or Charlie Chan? was Reparations Now! Concerto for Jazz Ensemble and Taiko. From 1980 to 1988 we were informed by the movement. After that, the Asian American movement was re-defined.

After '88, the Asian American movement went in another direction, and in 1988 we founded Asian Improv Arts, a non-profit arts organization in partnership with a non-profit experimental theater company Life on the Water. Life on the Water wasn't Asian but it was experimental and they were very open to working with us and providing resources.

For a long period, people thought that Asian Improv was simply a record company, even though the two aspects are equal. The performances support the recordings and vice versa. I think that Asian Improv Arts, the organization, helped us to focus more. We had to deal with more questions like a vision, goals, and a mission statement. With the record label it's more that we are artists and we have some music that we want to document.

Francis Wong: I think the Asian movement of the '80s really carried us forward, but by 1988 there was a wane in activity and that pushed us to figure out what was our own initiative and vision.

'88 was pretty key because that's when Jon and I moved to San Francisco from the south Bay. We were basically trying to set up some roots here. We lived just over the hill from Chinatown. We would come down to CPA (Chinese Progressive Association). Jon was teaching an English class, and I also was part of different things going on in CPA.

The years of '88, '89 and '90 were a transition period. We had formed the record label, and there was a pretty good response to our work, but how are were going to sustain it? What is a label? What kind of organization do we need to support our work?

That's when we started to enter the non-profit arts scene. We dealt with the issue of multiculturalism which started to develop at that time in some ways in response to the Jackson Rainbow Coalition. The (non-profit) foundation world coined the term multiculturalism. It was a period of time of trying to figure out what would be the strategy for the '90s.

Jon Jang: Among our first nine recordings, Glenn Horiuchi's recordings, including Poston Sonata with Lillian Nakano, spoke to the Redress/Reparations movement, and so did Never Give Up, my third recording. Never Give Up was inspired by the Jesse Jackson campaign and the Redress/Reparations movement, although more specifically the Jesse Jackson campaign.

From Multicultural Art Wars to Rodney King - Expanding Asian Improv

Jon Jang: Up until 1992 , Asian Improv Arts mainly served my work, but in 1992 Francis became the artistic director and expanded the record company and the organization so that there were a number of Asian American musicians who became part of the organization. Francis recorded his first CD Great Wall in 1993. We issued Mark Izu's Circle of Fire, and Miya Masaoka' Compositions / Improvisations. We released works by other people from outside the Bay Area, outside of California, such as Jeff Song, and Tatsu Aoki. Asian Improv aRts broadened. Also in '93, I recorded Tiananmen!, which Asian Improv Arts presented.

The other aspect of the early 1990s was the multicultural arts wars. We had Festival 2000. There was the Berkeley Repertory Theater which received $1.5 million Lila-Wallace Readers Digest Fund to expand Asian audiences while the Asian American Theater company did not get funded. There was the Center for the Arts, in Yerba Buena Center where there were attacks by the white media saying that the director, who was an African American woman, was a reverse racist. There was these actions of cultural colonialism.

In the funding game multiculturalism was used in the narrative as a litmus test. If you could describe in your narrative how multicultural you were you would get more funding. Different white arts mainstream organizations would try to doctor up their grants, or use artists of color or arts institutions of color and discuss issues of multiculturalism without them being at the table.

At Asian Improv we weren't allowing ourselves to be used. We had our own independent views.

Francis Wong: In '92 and '93, with the Rodney King verdict coming at the same time as the multiculturalism thing, events spoke to the need of a continuing revolutionary perspective as an artist.

Those years were the beginnings of a conscious movement of a larger number of artists beyond myself, Jon and Glenn. We had released six recordings from 1987 to 1991, the first five years. Then in '92 and '93, we released nine recordings by various artists - Glenn, Mark Izu, Miya Masaoka, Hafez Modirzadeh.

Also in '93, we started saying we had a concert season of Asian American creative music. We started a newsletter. We became clear on the things we needed to do in terms of the message of Asian Improv. From '92 on was more about promoting the fact that we were a movement .Our artistic development was more rapid. It was a time of ferment at the same time as a political upsurge.

Learning of Tiananmen and also the Chinese Diaspora

Francis Wong: A major event for us was Asian Improv's presentation of Tiananmen!, Jon's second major work, Reparations Now! being the first one. Tiananmen! was a real watershed in Jon's career and in Asian American creative music with his incorporation of Chinese musicians, Liu Qi-Chao and Zhang Yan, and James Newton.

At that time we were still not being recognized in the funding world but Asian Improv was able to pool community resources to mount major performances of that work. We had an international impact with those concerts. The success of those concerts led to Jon successfully signing on with Soul Note.

Jon Jang: The culmination of that work was in 1994 at the Chicago Jazz festival when we performed on the main stage at prime time, Saturday, 8 p.m. to 15,000 people. That was the last concert of the Pan Asian Arkestra. September 1994. I'd like to talk about the Pan Asian Arkestra.

The ensemble had been formed in 1988. There were two reasons for that ensemble. One was to have an ensemble that was large enough to perform the work of Concierto for Jazz Ensemble and Taiko, Reparations Now! Prior to that my group was the 4-in-One Quartet which performed in collaboration with the San Jose Taiko Group. But I needed more instruments to complement the sound of the taiko. So the first reason why I formed it was an artistic one.

The second reason had to do with cultural identity politics, recognizing the Asian American creative music movement. The Arkestra was a large ensemble that had Mark Izu, Anthony Brown, Francis (Wong), and other Asian Americans like Melecio Magdaluyo, John Worley, Jr., and Susan Hayase on taiko.

Tiananmen! represented a shift in direction in composition in that now we were looking at the world from an international perspective, working with two Chinese world-class artists Zhang Yan and Liu Qi-Chao.

In other recordings, Miya Masaoka switched from piano to koto, and Francis, a lot of his works were inspired by Chinese folk music. We were re-defining Asian American so that it wasn't just about the Asian American consciousness movement or about identity politics. We were shifting our direction towards looking, at least for Francis and myself, to the Chinese diaspora.

In Motion Magazine: Can you talk about the Chinese diaspora?

Francis Wong: Like I said, the first period '80-'88, was a politicizing period for a lot of us. From '92 to '94 there was a re-affirmation of some of these principles. At the same time as we were dealing with Rodney King we were dealing with the implications of the massacre at Tiananmen. There was the fall of communism, in quotes. The Berlin Wall went down in '89. We were processing that period. It was a transition in a way of looking at the world. We needed to develop a global context.

There was a re-definition of Asian American identity in the sense that up through the '80s the Asian American movement was primarily Chinese American, Japanese American, and generally American born. From the latter half of the '80s through the '90s there's been an infusion into our communities by immigrants from Southeast Asia and from Korea. With both the political global events and the changes our communities were going through there was a need for more of an international perspective on what defines us as Asian Americans. That's when a lot of folks in the Chinese community began once again talking about this idea of the diaspora.

Part 2 - Cultural Synthesis - A Global International Context
Part 3 - The Legacy of Overcoming Obstacles
Part 4 - We want to bring our culture to people in our music
Part 5 - The recordings of Jon Jang and Francis Wong

Published in In Motion Magazine February 25, 1998.