Jazz's Changing of the (Avant) Garde

Jazz rode the 1990s surprisingly well. It was a decade in which the recorded-music market was flat compared to other media; and traditionally, jazz--which has a perennial single-digit market share--is an early casualty of the budget cuts and corporate take-overs that market slumps spawn. But that didn't happen in the 1990s. Moreover, jazz benefited from plunging CD production costs and e-commerce, which created a slew of independent labels and direct marketing conduits. And tens of millions of dollars from public and philanthropic sources, combined with increased corporate sponsorships of jazz festivals from coast to coast (a bid for the jazz audience's alleged upscale demographics), sustained a healthy live performance market throughout the decade.

Yet boom times did little to counter jazz's "condition of epilogue," the syndrome of "virtuosic deconstruc-tions and recapitulations" that art critic Gary Indiana observed plaguing modern art in general. In particular, jazz seems to have lost its political edge. Protest against social injustice is no longer the driving--and artistically revitalizing--force it once was in the music. Wynton Marsalis's 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio on the horrors of slavery, Blood on the Fields (Columbia), was an exception. But in a period of arch retrospection, it's noteworthy that the industry-anointed divas aren't singing Billie Holiday's plaint about lynching, "Strange Fruit," nor are the young lions playing Charles Mingus's biting satire about segregation, "Fables of Faubus."

The silence in the wake of James Byrd's murder and "Giuliani time" is startling when compared to the rapid response of African-American jazz artists to the crises of the 1960s and early 1970s. Only two months elapsed between the Birmingham church bombing in 1963 and the recording of John Coltrane's haunting "Alabama." In 1972, barely 100 days after the Attica prison uprising ended with 43 dead, Archie Shepp waxed the rueful "Attica Blues." Outspoken African-American artists like clarinetist Don Byron still have ready access to the market through major labels; however, when the most topical composition on Byron's 1999 album Romance with the Unseen (Blue Note) is "Bernhard Goetz, James Ramseur and Me," a rumination on the 1984 New York subway shooting, it suggests a problematic lag. More disconcerting is bass player Charlie Haden, jazz's Great White Hope of the Left and leader of the long-dormant Liberation Music Orchestra, whose 1999 output, a soporific album of strings and singers called The Art of the Song (Verve), is, in both text and music, a case study of the numbing-down of blue-chip jazz.

If jazz is to retain any viability as a means of political expression, it will need to look outside the stables of the major record labels, outside the corporate-titled jazz festivals. Arguably its best bet is a loosely confederated group of Asian-American composers and instrumentalists, many of whom emerged in the 1990s through the artist-founded Asian Improv label. Late baby boomers, largely raised and based in California, their moral compasses were calibrated by accounts of the Japanese-American internment and other historic outrages; these artists were on the receiving end of everyday racism, and they observed the cultural corrosion of assimilation. At the same time, their jazz sensibilities were shaped by the pan-culturalism of the late Duke Ellington, Mingus's volatile mix of romance and rage, and the fusing of music and message in Max Roach's civil-rights-era classics "We Insist! Freedom Now Suite" and "It's Time." The result has been an integration of traditional Asian instruments and thematic materials with an in-your-face brand of politics to produce some of the decade's most provocative recordings, including the Asian American Jazz Orchestra's Big Bands behind Barbed Wire (Asian Improv); composer and koto virtuoso Miya Masaoka's What Is the Difference between Stripping and Playing the Violin? (Victo); and baritone saxophonist Fred Ho's full-blown political opera Warrior Sisters: The New Adventures of African and Asian Womyn Warriors (Koch Jazz).

However, it is the recent debut of the Beijing Trio, in an album of the same name on the Asian Improv label, that most clearly passes the torch from one generation to another, and from one community to another. The trio was put together by Jon Jang, perhaps the most intriguing figure in the Asian-American jazz movement. He graduated from Oberlin College's Conservatory of Music and is equally adept at interpreting Ellington and Olivier Messiaen, despite having taken up the piano only at age 19; he is an unrelenting Bay-area cultural activist and co-founder of Asian Improv; and, as the leader of the Pan Asian Arkestra and other small ensembles, he has a lengthy track record as a composer thoroughly versed in the jazz and traditional Chinese lexicons, one who tugs at an audience's heartstrings while leading them into the breach.

The Beijing Trio was originally conceived as a duo, between Jang and the great drummer Max Roach, but it serendipitously expanded when Chinese "National First Rank Performing Artist" Jiebing Chen came to the initial recording session to meet Roach. The trio's first album melds the mournful portamento of Chen's erhu (a two-string violin, pronounced "r-who"), Jang's shimmering tremolos and percussive clusters on the piano, and Roach's frequent use of brushes and mallets, creating a strangely beautiful palette. Most impressively, the musicians flesh out their minimally scripted pieces without the drums and piano overwhelming the relatively delicate erhu, which has a sound box no bigger than a coffee can.

All this has helped create a buzz within jazz circles about the Beijing Trio's ongoing concert tour (which will culminate in State Department-aided performances in China later this year). Their first concert at the Library of Congress's Coolidge Auditorium in November revealed the boundary-breaking collaboration to be both daring and brilliant.

The concert began with a bracing solo by Chen and a duo reading by Chen and Jang of the pianist's tender "Two Flowers on a Stem." Then the upstage sliding doors opened, and the 75-year-old Roach spryly shuffled to his drums, turning what had been a polite audience into a cheering crowd. But if longtime Roach listeners were hoping for bristling tempos and plenty of fireworks, they were in for a surprise. He persistently used subdued, subtle patterns that distilled to soft exclamation points or faded to the background as Chen or Jang introduced new materials. While Roach was often clearly leading the trio through the ensuing improvisations, what he was leading was just as often clearly Sinocentric music.

This is not to suggest that Jang didn't frequently dig deep into the classical literature of jazz piano. Jang's work contained glints of Abdullah Ibrahim's lyricism, Cecil Taylor's volcanic outbursts, and Mal Waldron's hard-edged bluesiness. Classical training for erhu players does not emphasize the facility with scales and chord changes central to jazz improvisation; it focuses instead on building an inventory of melodies. But in a duet with Roach, Chen developed a short, furiously bowed motif that allowed Roach to bring to the foreground his trademark interplay of snare drum and cymbal, giving the concert a well-received burst of jazz heat. The net effect was not Chinese-tinged jazz or an easily digestible world beat hybrid, but a provocative cross-cultural exchange that will resonate in the jazz world for a long time.

The world premiere of Jang's "The Temple of the Drum: An Offering to Max Roach" was the concert's high point. Roach himself called the piece earlier than expected in the program, and after a short discussion, Jang announced that it would be performed as a trio, not a duet for erhu and piano as originally commissioned by the Library of Congress's McKim Fund. To bend the commission protocol--indeed, with a piece he had first rehearsed only the previous day--was a high-stakes gamble even for a master of the art like Roach, and in the end, Roach's daring shaped the performance as much as his drumming. While Roach anchored the solemn opening melody and propelled the climactic theme, his real triumph was in subverting the pat role of an elder passively receiving tribute. The message was clear: Max Roach is still a force to contend with.

But, then, so is Jang. He didn't just hire Roach as a ringer; he instigated an ongoing collabora-tion that Roach readily admits has widened his (already panoramic) perspective. The engagement is both musical and intellectual. Roach has long called "jazz" a four-letter word--the white man's word, creating a faceless category that denies the individual composers of America's classical music the respect they deserve. Jang has been just as outspoken about his own objections to letting arts-funding bureaucracies define a minority community's culture.

Yet for Jang, the synergy with Roach goes well beyond their different and shared objections to the way the music world deals with race. There is mutual edification in their outrage about the larger world as well. "In 1960," Jang said in an interview before the Beijing Trio took the stage, "Max was already connecting the African-American struggle with that in Africa. So the connection between Asian Americans' historical struggle and the grap-pling with the idea of individual freedom that is now occur-ring in China is something that has a precedent in the music through Max."

He continued, "Just the name 'Beijing' evokes a lot of images--Mao and Nixon, Tiananmen--the way 'South Africa' did earlier in the century. Through the trio's upcoming tour of China, I want to bring these images into the dialogue about the Chinese experience in the United States."

The subjects of his music already span the murder of Vincent Chin (committed by angry auto workers looking for someone Japanese to bash) in his 1992 album Self-Defense!; the infamy of June 4, 1989, in his 1993 album Tiananmen!; and the detainment of Chinese immigrants on Angel Island early in the twentieth century in his 1997 album Island: The Immigrant Suite No. 1 (all three issued on the Italian Soul Note label). With the Beijing Trio's music creating an even larger web of connections, Jang's contribution to the dialogue is gaining more depth and power. ยค