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.”
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.”
The need for coming together as a community — to pool resources, to provide practical opportunities for a range of dedicated, creative people, and to grow the local audience — was an idea brewing in a number of circles at once. “AIR recognized that there was this group of less prominent artists,” says Chan, “who were developing their voices.” Wong adds, “These guys [Chan and Lee] were trying to figure out how to take things to the next level, to get real support for the music.” This meant they had to team up with an established cultural institution with a commitment to community involvement. After consultations with Wong, Chan and Lee drew up a plan, put the word out, and got a thumbs-up from the Oakland Asian Cultural Center (OACC), which, as it turned out, shared their concerns. “Everyone was on the same wavelength,” remembers Chan.
AIR's recent expansion in the scope of its recording projects further illustrates this confluence of energies, which is reaching beyond the Bay Area. In the first collaboration of its kind, Beijing Trio unites pianist Jon Jang and erhu (two-string violin) player Jiebing Chen with drummer Max Roach, the world-renowned creative-music lifer who came up with Charlie Parker more than 50 years back, for an extraordinary cross-cultural meditation that Roach says is “one of the most refreshing and enjoyable experiences in my career.” Elephant Tracks, a vibrant hip hop benefit comp for the APISA High School Motivational Conference, featuring award-winning turntablist DJ Rhettmatic of the Beat Junkies and the slamming Mountain Brothers, confirms AIR's willingness to embrace the next generation of innovators. Volume One by veteran saxophonist Fred Anderson, 71, one of the original AACM members, captures an inspired set by an unsung hero to generations of Chi-town improvisers in his element — live with his free-leaning quartet at the Velvet Lounge, the nightclub he owns and operates as a showcase for current jazz exploration.
Wong explains the label's shift from its largely homegrown, Asiancentric, jazz-improv roots: “As time goes on and as we continue to maintain our course, responsibilities are coming our way. I feel like what Fred is doing is giving us responsibility. … There's a continuum from Max Roach to the AACM guys to us. And I feel an honor to be part of this legacy. I also feel a responsibility to pass on to folks [like the hip-hoppers on Elephant Tracks] who want to combine artistic excellence and be part of the community.” This inclusive attitude echoes the ethos of younger artists like Leon Lee, who says, “Francis, Fred Anderson, Max Roach, the Mountain Brothers, it's a pretty cohesive vision; everyone's just going about it in their own ways” — a statement that arguably applies as well to Lee, Chan, and other global-minded, emerging locals like bassist Adam Lane, clarinetist Matt Ingalls, multireedist Aaron Bennett, electronics maven Scott Looney, and bassist-flutist John-Carlos Perea.
Because solidarity starts with a solid foundation, it makes sense that the steadfast Asian-American contingent in the Bay Area is leading the charge for a borderless, pancultural coalition. Of all the fragmented grass-roots scenes for creative music in the past decade, AIR-sponsored initiatives, from Asian Improv Records to the Asian American Jazz Festival, seem the best grounded for maximum long-term impact. The Alliance's debut presentation, “The Center of Sound Festival #1,” showcases a world-class bill of respected elders and respectable young bloods, including the darkly soulful Fred Anderson Trio (with drummer Hamid Drake), the stirring John-Carlos Perea Quartet (with tenor saxist Hafez Modirzadeh), which draws on traditions from sacred American Indian melodies to electric jazz, and Jeff Chan's big fUn philharmonic, a stunning 11-piece orchestra that performs sophisticated music both serious and, well, fun. As if echoing Francis Wong's idea that “community makes it possible for real human interaction that is self-renewing,” Chan's big-band compositions evoke a hard-won kind of optimism, which, aptly enough, serves as a de facto symbol of the AECA's ambition.
The Center of Sound Festival #1 takes place on Friday, May 12, with Fred Anderson Trio and John-Carlos Perea Quartet, and on Saturday, May 13, with Fred Anderson Trio and Jeff Chan's big fUn philharmonic, at 8 p.m. at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, 388 Ninth St. (at Webster). Tickets are $12 (in advance) and $15 (at the door, with a 2-for-1 student rate with valid ID); call toll-free 1-877-243-3774. More info on the AECA is available at www.asianimprov.com.