After composer-flutist James Newton and I spent a summer of 1997 in Beijing researching the life and music of Mei Lanfang for our new work When Sorrow Turns to Joy -Songlines: The Spiritual Tributaries of Paul Robeson and Mei Lanfang commissioned by Cal Performances and the Walker Art Center, we traveled to New York in May 1998 to research the life and music of Paul Robeson. We visited our friend and mentor Max Roach, who helped facilitate a visit to the Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture. James and I also spent time at Max’s apartment talking how we enjoyed our experience in Beijing. At a private meeting with Max, I invited him to produce and perform a recording with me as part of my 5 Year Plan. A 74 year old Max jumped up with excitement: “Let’s do it next month! I am not getting any younger!” I replied with a nervous stutter, “But-but-but Max where am I going to get the money?” Max reassured me,” Don’t worry Jon. You’ll find a way.”
Originally, the Beijing Trio was going to be a Max Roach-Jon Jang duo. However, when erhu performer Jiebing Chen visited one of our rehearsals, Max and I decided in a matter of seconds to add her to our ensemble. I wanted to name our trio the Shanghai Trio because Shanghai is where Jiebing is originally from and Shanghai is the sister city of both New York and San Francisco that connects us to the cities where we lived. Max rejected the name idea because he felt uncomfortable trying to pronounce Shanghai and Beijing was on his radar since my New York visit in May.
Because Max also made it a rule that we do not read music while we are performing, the whole recording was improvised. Because I have a music literate understanding of Max’s world of the black music tradition and Jiebing’s world of Chinese music tradition, I had to play the role of the bridge or liaison between them. During 1998-2000, The Beijing Trio performed in Chicago, Washington DC, San Francisco and Boston. In 2001, the Beijing Trio performed at the Royal Festival Hall in London, Milan, the Jazz/No Jazz Festival in Zurich and the Berlin Jazz Festival.