The trajectory of my work mirrors the New American Majority with the development of a unique Asian American perspective. This new perspective is in solidarity with the Indigenous People and people of color that was inspired by the Black Liberation Movement of the 1960s and the Black Lives Matter in the present to which I owe a debt. I am very proud to be part of the lineage of the voices of artists of color, such as my ancestor mentors Max Roach, Paul Robeson and Amiri Baraka, who all dedicated a greater part of their life criticizing racial inequality in this country.
During my high school years in the 1970s, I was inspired by Max Roach’s We Insist! The Freedom Now Suite recording because Max Roach spoke about racial inequality in this country through his music. The recording and cover artwork is inspired by the lunch counter sit-in by four black college students in Greensboro, North Carolina in February 1960 that galvanized a national movement of sit-ins in resistance against racism and segregation. As I stated in my opening paragraph, I am very proud to be part of the lineage of artists of color who criticized racial inequality in this country. I am honored that my six years collaborating with Max Roach became an important part of Max Roach’s legacy.
When Senator Andrew Jacobs proposed a controversial measure to change the National Anthem from The Star Spangled Banner to America, the Beautiful, in 1989, it was around the same time Max Roach became the first black musician to be awarded a 1988 MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Award. Figuring that he was in a good mood, this little known artist pitched the idea to Max Roach to collaborate on a project called SenseUS (1990). The idea was to reimagine and create new national anthems. SenseUS explores these questions: Why is there only one anthem? Can one anthem speak for all of us? Why does the anthem have to be a song? The meaning of SenseUS is to sense the United States, to sense people of color in the United States to sense the New American Majority. SenseUS featured musicians Max Roach, John Santos, Jang with poets Sonia Sanchez, Victor Hernandez Cruz and Genny Lim. The work remains relevant today in regards to the development of a New American Majority. The work premiered to an audience of color of 6,000 at Davis Symphony Hall in San Francisco in October 1990. Max Roach and I also recorded Beijing Trio in 1998, one of Max Roach’s last recordings. During 1999-2001, I toured with Max Roach as part of the Beijing Trio at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Zurich, Berlin, Milan and the Royal Festival Hall in London.
About three decades ago, I became an ally of Black Lives Matter before the network was established. Commissioned by Cal Performances -UC Berkeley in 1993, two movements in of my four movement suite The Color of Reality (1993), are in response to two black victims of police violence: Eleanor Bumpurs, a black mentally ill grandmother, who was shot and killed by the Bronx police for not paying her rent on time and Rodney King, who was beaten and kicked 56 times by the Los Angeles Police Department, for a DUI violation. The work premiered to an audience of color of 1400 at Zellerbach Auditorium. Can’t Stop Cryin’ for America 2014-2016: Black Lives Matter! which premiered at the San Francisco Jazz Festival in 2017, memorializes the legal lynching of black victims by the police such as Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Mario Woods and others. Mother Jones described Jang’s latest recording, The Pledge of Black Asian Allegiance, “is more than a political project and powerful music. It’s a mirror to American history.” https://www.motherjones.com/media/2020/06/jon-jang-on-his-recent-black-asian-solidarity-album-amiri-baraka-malcolm-x/
When I first learned about William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony, a work that honored black people, in an Afro-American Music History course taught by my mentor, Dr. Wendell Logan at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, my big dream was to someday honor the Chinese of America by composing The Chinese American Symphony. I was further motivated to compose the work when I learned that the US government invalidated the Chinese railroad workers contribution at the centennial anniversary of the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in the United States in Utah in 1969. My uncle was one of the spokespersons of the Chinese Historical Society of America who were intentionally silenced by the US government. During the process of preparing to compose The Chinese American Symphony, I studied scores of compositions with train themes by Honegger, Villa-Lobos, Li Jinhui, Ellington-Strayhorn and Reich.
Thanks to Music Conductor Michael Morgan, who collaborated with the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco and the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, we engaged the Chinese American communities in San Francisco and Oakland. I became the first American born Chinese to compose a symphonic work that honors Chinese American history. For nearly four decades, I have been giving a musical voice to a history that has been silent. A body of my works represents a chronology of Chinese American transnational history in San Francisco. Commissioned by the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra and Oakland East Bay Symphony, I composed The Chinese American Symphony (2007) which pays tribute to the Chinese immigrant laborers who built the first transcontinental railroad in United States.
A body of works with narration memorialize Chinese American transnational history such as A Chinaman’s Chance, A Choy’s Chance! (2019); Walter U Lum: Chinese Times! (2017 Toisan Railway (2014); Portrait of Sun Yat-sen (2011), Island: The Immigrant Suite No. 2 (1995) and the score for the dramatic adaptation of Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior (1994) commissioned by the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Huntington Theatre in Boston and Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles (Mark Taper).
In Portrait of Sun Yat-sen, my approach is modeled after Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait where Copland quotes from two traditional American songs such as Springfield Mountain, Lincoln’s hometown and Steven Foster’s blackface minstrel song, Camptown Races, which is both quoted and fragmented. In Portrait of Sun Yat-sen, I quote and fragment The Battle Hymn of the Republic because Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the Father of Modern China who led the Chinese Revolution in 1911, was inspired by Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Island: The Immigrant Suite No. 2 (1995) for the Kronos Quartet and Cantonese Opera singer memorializes Chinese immigrants like my grandparents who were subject to intensive interrogation on Angel Island for the sole purpose to discourage and keep Chinese immigrants from entering San Francisco during the Chinese Exclusion Act era (1882-1943).
After I viewed a video of Paul Robeson merging an East African chorale melody with an 11th century Czechoslovakian song seamlessly into one song and saw a photo of Paul Robeson and Mei Lanfang in London in 1935, I approached James Newton about us collaborating on composing a work to pay tribute to Robeson and Mei Lanfang, who were both early examples of multicultural artists before the term was invented. Both James Newton and I share a rich history of exploring heterogeneity and hybridity through the intersection of African American, European and Chinese classical and traditional music forms. To celebrate the centennial anniversary of the birth of Paul Robeson, James Newton and I were NOT interested in a retrospective of Paul Robeson. We did NOT want to perform his signature songs such as Old Man River. I raised the question, “If Paul Robeson was alive today, what would he be performing?”
James Newton and I composed a 90 minute work entitled, When Sorrow Turns to Joy – Songlines: The Spiritual Tributary of Paul Robeson and Mei Lanfang that featured a bass baritone, Beijing Opera singer, flute, jinghu, erhu, piano, double bass, multiple percussion, and Beijing Opera percussion. All of the performing artist who were based in different cities: Beijing, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Commissioned by Cal Performances -University of California at Berkeley and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the work premiered at Cal Performances in June 2000 followed by performances at the Walker Art Center, Flynn Performing Arts Center, Dartmouth College and the Banlieues Bleues Festival in Paris.
As a pianist and leader of music ensembles, I have performed and recorded with James Newton and David Murray. My ensembles have toured at major concert halls and music festivals in Europe, China, Canada, South Africa and the United States. My ensemble, Jon Jang & the Pan Asian Arkestra, opened for Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach and Miles Davis at the Verona Jazz Festival in Italy in June 1990. We performed Reparations Now! Concerto for Jazz Ensemble and Taiko, a work that pays tribute to the Japanese American redress and reparations campaign which won reparations when President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act in August 1988.Jon Jang & the Pan Asian Arkestra also performed my work, Tiananmen! on the mainstage of the Chicago Jazz Festival in September 1994. The Jon Jang Sextet featuring David Murray, James Newton and Billy Hart performed Charles Mingus’ Meditations on Integration on the mainstage of the Monterey Jazz Festival in September 1996. In these three festivals as well as other, I became the first Chinese American musician to lead ensembles that performed my large scale works on mainstages of jazz festivals.
I was one of eight composers along with Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, Robert Ashley, Trimpin and others to be selected as a Djerassi Resident Artist and to have our works performed at the First Other Minds Festival at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco in November 1993. James Newton and I were the only two artists from United States who were invited to perform at the Arts Alive Festival in South Africa in September 1994, four months after the election to end apartheid. We were invited because of the anti-apartheid artist activist work that we did in California. In July 1986, I organized an Asian American Artists Against Apartheid concert event where 300 Asian Americans attended, as well as representatives from Pan African Congress (PAC), African National Congress (ANC), SWAPO, and the Coalition of South African Trade Unionist (COSATU)
As a scholar and visiting artist, I have presented lectures such as The Sounds of Struggle: Music from the Black Liberation Movement of the 1960s to the Asian American Movement of the 1980s and One Day American, One Day Alien: Black & Brown Artists Who Made the National Anthem Their Own at Columbia University, Hamilton College, Northeastern University, University of Maryland, University of Michigan, University of Kentucky, Ohio State University, UCLA, UC Irvine, University of Oregon, Oregon State University and Santa Rosa Junior College I have been a keynote speaker and given lecture-demonstrations on various topics at the San Francisco Jazz Festival, , University of Washington, Cornish Institute of the Arts, Stanford University, Brown University, the Crane House in Louisville, Kentucky, Western Arts Alliance Conference in Salt Lake City, APAP Conference in New York, University of Hawai’i at Mãnoa, Chinese Historical Society of America and the California Institute of the Arts. I taught the first Asian American music courses at University of California at Berkeley (1992-1995) and at UC Irvine (1995). As a Visiting Fellow at Stanford University, I taught a course entitled Traditions in Transformation and directed a student music ensemble.
Francis Wong and I co-founded Asian Improv Records (19878) and Asian Improv aRts (1988), an independent record company and a nonprofit arts organization whose mission statement promotes “new directions in music by Asian Americans.’ I produced and recorded with my ensemble the first recording on Asian Improv Records entitled The Ballad or the Bullet? dedicated to Malcolm X and Theolonius Monk. My latest recording, The Pledge of Black Asian Allegiance dedicated to Malcolm X and Yuri Kochiyama marks the 101st recording on Asian Improv Records Prominent New York composers-improvisers, such as Vijay Iyer and Miya Masaoka, produced and launched their first and early recordings on Asian Improv Records. Other artists who produced and launched their first recording or early recordings on Asian Improv Records include Fred Ho, Francis Wong, Glenn Horiuchi, Anthony Brown, Mark Izu.and Hafez Modirzadeh
I have received grants, awards and recognition from the following: San Francisco Arts Commission Individual Artist Commission (1995. 1997,2002,2006, 2009, 2010,2014, 2016, 2019), Yerba Center for the Arts Fellow (2019-2020), Yerba Center for the Arts Summit (2019), invited to perform at the Induction of the Chinese railroad workers into the Labor Hall of Fame by the Department of Labor (2014), invited to perform at The White House Forum on Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage by the Secretary of Interior (2013), first artist to receive the History Maker Award from the Chinese Historical Society of America (2013), Martin Luther King Jr.-Cesar Chavez-Rosa Parks Visiting Professor recognition at the University of Michigan (2012), Irvine Foundation (2011), US Artist Fellowship nomination (2009), Creative Work Fund (2007), Ford Foundation Mid-Career Visionary Artist Award (2006), Grammy Award nominated Far East Suite by the Asian American Orchestra (2003),Cal Arts Alpert in the Arts Award nomination (2002, 2000. 1996), Rockefeller Multi-Arts Production and Creativity Fund (2001), first Conservatory of Music alumnus to be awarded the Distinguished Achievement Award from Oberlin College (2001), Meet The Composer New Resident Program (2000-2003), Creative Capital Foundation (1999), Creative Work Fund (1998) “One of the artists who have changed jazz since 1983” by JAZZ magazine (1998), Downbeat 47-49th Annual International Critics Poll in the Composer category (1997-1999), , Rockefeller Multi-Arts Production Fund (1997), Fund for US Artists at International Festivals and Exhibitions, Arts International (1997), First Prize in the Jazz Orchestra category Julius Hemphill Composition Award by the Jazz Composers Alliance in Boston (1997), Meet The Composer Reader’s Digest Commissioning Program (1995), Golden Ring Award from the Asian American Foundation (1995), National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Composition Fellowship (1994), National Endowment for the Arts Presenting and Commissioning (1994), Fund for US Artists at International Festivals and Exhibitions, Arts International (1994), Lila Wallace Readers’ Digest Arts Partnership Program (1994), National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Ensemble grant to Jon Jang & the Pan Asian Arkestra (1993), One of ten artists selected to be profiled in the Creative Mind television series on KQED (1991),Distinguished Artists Award from the Asian Business League (1992),National Endowment for the Arts Inter-Arts (1989)