Sonic Revival

To save a floundering local avant-jazz scene, the Alliance of Emerging Creative Artists is bringing back the old-fashioned school of mentoring

Support for Bay Area creative music has reached a low point. Only three small venues currently feature adventurous jazz, improv, or experimental concerts on a quasi-regular schedule: Luggage Store Gallery (every Thursday), the Clit Stop at the Delivery Room (aka Hot Rodney's Bar and Grill, first and last Saturdays of the month), and Gallery 23Ten (every other Friday). What's worse, the audience turnout for many of these gigs barely covers gas money for the artists. "It's about as underground as it gets," cracks saxophonist Jeff Chan, 29, who should know; he curated the Luggage Store's weekly series for nearly a year. "But I'm not down on the Luggage Store," stresses Chan. "It fulfills a need. It's definitely a very important place and it will continue to be so." Still, he's ready to move on. "The music I perform," argues Chan, "the work we put into it doesn't warrant door gigs. And I'm sick of playing to one other person, if that."

But the dearth of "more respectable" showcase spots leaves the up-and-coming artist with few options: 1) continue to compose, rehearse, and perform for no one while whining about the inhumanity of it all; 2) quit playing out altogether and nurture the alienated art-slave routine (maybe chop off a random body part or start a drug habit); 3) try to infuse some life into the "scene" by launching a bold new enterprise. Choosing the healthy alternative of Door No. 3, Chan and flutist Leon Lee, 27, have founded the Alliance of Emerging Creative Artists (AECA) -- with indispensable advisory support from veteran Asian Improv aRts (AIR) leader saxophonist Francis Wong, 43.

The AECA takes its cue from two pioneering sources: Chicago's groundbreaking Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), inaugurated in the mid-'60s by do-it-yourself jazz futurists Muhal Richard Abrams and members of Art Ensemble of Chicago; and AIR, the Bay Area-based presenting organization and record label that in roughly 10 years has brought national attention to the dynamic contributions of the country's top Asian-American musicians, many of whom hail from San Francisco. Not unlike the AACM and AIR, Lee says the Alliance's foremost goal is to build "a true sense of community: no walls." While initial AECA-sponsored events will focus on wide-ranging aural exploration, the group ultimately intends to function as a multigenerational, multicultural, and multidisciplinary intersection of the arts -- with educational outreach serving as an integral component. The mission statement explains further: "We serve as a resource for artists who seek a connection to their artistic forbearers as well as those who feel a responsibility in the development of younger aspiring artists."

Alliance founders Jeff Chan, Francis Wong, and Leon Lee.
Karen Kirchhoff
Alliance founders Jeff Chan, Francis Wong, and Leon Lee.

Until the past decade or so, elder cats schooling youngsters on the "jazz life," from the art form to the business, was simply the way things were done. You paid your dues by doing time with the great ones, if you were good enough (and lucky enough) to hang. Perhaps the most famous historical line traces the evolution from bebop to beyond via Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane: Bird gave Miles his proverbial "big break" with a four-year stint in his group, then Miles helped bring out Trane's vision via a fertile working relationship that spanned nearly six years total. The enduring influence of these master musicians on the shape of jazz is inestimable. But when you look at the associations, the web of celebrated players who passed through the various Parker-Davis-Coltrane bands, who are active leaders to this day -- Max Roach, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland, Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, and Rashied Ali to name just a few -- you start to see, perhaps even more clearly, the far-reaching value of this type of learning model.

But this concept has fallen out of favor in recent years, largely due to economics. There are plenty of workshops, university programs, and boutique forums, like the Thelonious Monk Institute, where budding improvisers get to interact with old-timers, but it's not the same as participating in a legitimate working band. And the sense of community in many of these situations is arguably disingenuous. How could it be otherwise when students gain access only if they can afford the hefty entrance fees (or bag a coveted financial aid package), and teachers often spend more time dictating "the rules" than nurturing independent voices? "Music education is in a real crisis in this country," says Francis Wong, who has taught at the college level. "A lot of it's all about the rules; it's not really about trying to teach people how to follow the tradition."

The AECA's founders want to fill this void. Both Chan and Lee are committed to extending what they see as the true legacy of jazz and creative music by expanding the solidarity movement started more than a decade ago by AIR. "Our idea is looking at the lineage, the continuum," suggests Lee, "of where this form of music comes from, culturally, jazz music, and where we are now standing in the middle of that stream. Old-school AIR folks -- Jon Jang, Francis Wong [who were both just awarded prestigious, three-year Meet the Composer New Residencies grants] -- they developed this particular language of music that resonated with us. ... They've dug this niche for us to be in, but it's up to us to further that into the next step -- which is obviously not being partitioned by culture, ethnicity, race, identity. Those are things that we're trying to build bridges and understanding between."

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