Jazz inspired by "Guanyin," air pollution in Beijing, and self-discovery

In our arts column – In Review – Victoria Moy writes about plays, shows and films that focus on lives as lived by the different ethnicities in America. This week she did an interview via email with Alan Chan, a classical pianist, composer and the conductor of the Alan Chan Jazz Orchestra. He talks about where he gets his ideas, a Lunar New Year-inspired performance, and whether or not there's a jazz scene in the Asian-American community. Chan moved from Hong Kong to America to pursue his dream in music.

The Alan Chan Jazz OrchestraAs someone who's immigrated to the US, have you found any difficulties being a musician in America?

I am very lucky to be where I am today. It is not easy to start a career in music in the US as a foreigner. First, being an artist means scarce resource and stiff competition. Then there is the immigration part, which could be a long and tedious process. The rest will be your entrepreneurship and hard work.

What demographics make up your audiences generally? Are there any other specific groups that you'd like to know your music?

It is generally pretty diverse. Besides fans I've had over the years, who are mostly in their late 40s and 50s, I also have students who come to check out my concerts and write about them for music appreciation classes. In recent years, I've been getting younger people and more Asians who've learned about my music through interviews and online, et cetera.

One of my favorite songs from your 2016 Lunar New Year's concert was "Spirit's Dream." What is the story behind this song?

Oh I totally forgot to talk about that during the concert! It is based on a painting by Liao, a Taiwanese artist, of “Guanyin”, or the Goddess of Compassion. The long improvised solos came from the lush brush strokes of the painting. I call it a “soulful” piece, in a more Chinese sense.

Can you talk about how you were inspired to compose your song "Moving to a New Capital?"

I was in Beijing in December 2007 for three days. It was the first time I got to experience the very bad air pollution in this ancient capital. So in the music I decided to bring the audience back to ancient China, and juxtapose it with groovy and modern music. The title was created as an ironic statement. There were reports that the Prime Minister at the time warned that Beijing may become inhabitable and that the capital may need to be relocated.

RehearsalAny thoughts on the state of the Asian American jazz scene? Is there one? 

I know at least a few Asian American players from the older generation. There's Francis Wong and the late Fred Ho, both saxophonists. Many of them have been through the civil rights movement and so their work was inspired by the struggle of minorities in the US. Thanks to college music programs, there are now more young players, with very refined technique and rich musical expressions. However, there is probably no critical mass of Asian jazz players to call it a “scene.” Many of us immerse ourselves in the mainstream culture. However, when I am leading a band, I try to express things that I want to express.

As far as I know, your band is composed predominately of white men. Why is this? You mentioned your band was started at your church?

Many of the members of my band are my former classmates from USC and UMiami, and are very successful in the LA music scene. When I went to school in UMiami, students studying jazz were predominately white males. It was very similar at USC, although I did meet some women players. So I have never worked with Asian American players due to this environment. Also, once the core group was formed in 2011, we tended to stick together since we work together on achieving a specific sound color and style. 

I created a performance series at the Gateway Christian Church called the Gateway Performance Series, and they helped me launch my jazz orchestra project. They provided the venue back in 2011, and we got a grant from the American Composer Forum. This is how the band was formed. 

Any suggestions for Asian Americans or young people wanting to learn to play or compose jazz?

When there is an abundance of institutions and schools around us, we all go study and earn a degree, and do similar things that others do. Part of being an artist is to “know thyself" and express yourself in the most genuine and authentic way, a process which takes many many years. One thing I would suggest is not to be afraid to search and go with a path that works for you. I never imagined myself writing for jazz bands when I went to school in Miami. I was a classical composition major. But throughout the years I discovered more of my interest in big band music. 

Are there any favorite spots you have in Alhambra where you spend time to mull on musical ideas?

Beccali Cafe & Rotisserie is where I have chow fun mein, Savoy Kitchen for their hainam chicken, and Foseelman's Ice Cream for black sesame or docle de leche ice cream.

What new songs or performances are coming up next?

Three exciting projects: El Camino College, where I am currently an Adjunct Professor, will present the 3rd Annual El Camino College Jazz Festival on Saturday, April 9. I will direct a set with the Concert Jazz Band and Grammy Award-winning saxophonist Bob Mintzer

In June I will launch a new project with renowned Chinese wind player Guo Yazhi, to present new concertos and arrangements for suona and my jazz orchestra. This concert will be where East, West and Jazz meets.

Last fall, I received the George Duke Commissioning Prize from the 67-piece Symphonic Jazz Orchestra to write a new work for their 2016-17 season. To write a major work in the orchestral jazz style – a fusion of jazz rhythm and orchestra form, is really a dream come true for me! More information will be available at alanchanjazzorchestra.com for more updates.

Victoria Moy is a New York-born, Los Angeles-based writer. She has a MFA from University of Southern California, where she studied playwriting, screenwriting and TV writing, and has a B.A. from Dartmouth College in Theater. She is also the author of the book Fighting for the Dream.

Editor's note: This interview was edited and condensed.

1 thought on “Jazz inspired by "Guanyin," air pollution in Beijing, and self-discovery”

  1. You are such a young pioneer in Asia-American Big band music.

Leave a Reply