Jon Jang composes bittersweet symphonies

Musician-activist’s works are steeped in civil rights history


Jon Jang’s journey as an artist has intersected with some of the big historical events in racial justice during the late 20th and early 21st centuries. But as the faces change and issues shapeshift, he’s stayed true to his musical roots and active in resisting the oppressions of the here and now.

“There’s voter suppression, anti-Asian hate and climate change to fight,” said the composer and pianist. “It’s not going to get done unless people show up.”

Jang’s story stretches across the country, and race lines, along the transcontinental railroad built by Chinese immigrants, to points across the world including the Royal Festival Hall in London and the freedom fight in apartheid South Africa. It would take several columns to pull all the threads together comprehensively, though suffice it to say that consistently woven through his work are Chinese America, civil rights, and the African American liberation movement in music and literature.

“Black music and Black revolutionary politics became a popular social phenomenon,” said Jang of the late 1960s and early ’70s when he was coming of age and to consciousness in Palo Alto. “Known Black intellectuals, artists and political leaders were covered by the media,” said Jang, who sought out foundational texts by James Baldwin, Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Eileen Southern and A.B. Spellman.

“I also purchased ‘By Any Means Necessary,’ the writings and speeches by Malcolm X,” and recordings, Archie Shepp’s ‘Attica Blues,’ Mingus’ ‘Fables of Faubus’ and ‘We Insist! Freedom Now Suite,’ by Max Roach,” he said.

“Reading those books, I became Black music literate, but you can’t become political till you have relationships with people,” said Jang. Through a series of awakenings, musical and political, he would go on to work in the company of Black Arts Movement founder Baraka and in a trio with Roach (who, aside from being one of the world’s great drummers, was also known for his trio with Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus).

The timeline of Jang’s work presented here may move backward and forward in time, but such is the nature of the life of an improvisational musician.

“Black intellectuals rejected the term jazz,” explained Jang, who attended a life-changing early ’70s performance at Keystone Korner in North Beach by one such player, multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

Like his fellow serious musicians, Kirk preferred the term Black classical music, and it was that legacy which intrigued Jang to forge his own sound, at times a hybrid of Black music and Chinese folk tradition. His “Chinese American Symphony No. 1,” in tribute to the Chinese workers who built the railroad, fuses Cantonese folk songs and opera, earning it the distinction as the first composition of its kind to be created and performed by a Chinese American.

“I never realized that my childhood growing years in Palo Alto and our family history in San Francisco Chinatown would influence one of the most significant achievements of my musical legacy,” he wrote in his recollection of composing the piece.

“The first person I heard sing Chinese folk songs was Paul Robeson,” said Jang, referring to the activist, actor, singer, athlete and towering figure of the Harlem Renaissance whose life of resistance and performance were inseparable.

“He spoke several languages before the Internet,” he joked. Jang’s cultural education also predates Google and YouTube and his list of musical credits, from the Kronos Quartet to James Newton, defy categorization.

Receiving his education at Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, under the tutelage of his mentor, composer Wendell Logan, it was at Oberlin that he learned of the city’s history as a stop on the Underground Railroad. But Jang did not observe the campus to be a gracious host for his African American professors, Logan and Tommie Smith, the track and field Olympic gold medalist who raised his fist in protest of American racism at the 1968 Olympics and became an icon.

“That’s where I first witnessed racism,” said Jang. “White students who came from privileged backgrounds, having their first experience of Black professors with authority and power. I think they preferred to see them as part of the invisible architecture,” said Jang.

His practical and studio education at Oberlin would come to inform his work back in the Bay Area on anti-police brutality in Oakland and labor organizing at Stanford, representing the interests of the campus’s Black and Chicano workers. But it was the killing of Vincent Chin in Detroit in 1982 that galvanized Jang and an entire movement for Asian American civil rights. Chin was beaten to death by two white autoworkers enraged by the fallacy that the Japanese auto industry was taking their jobs away (Chin’s heritage was Chinese).

“I was the same age as Vincent Chin. This was something that was real to me,” said Jang, who was not alone as nationwide protests began in the name of Chin.

Soon after the event, Jang released his first album, “Are you Chinese or Charlie Chan?” its concept a riff on the string of non-Asian actors who played the title role in 44 Chan films.

“What if two white men beat up Charlie Chan only to find he’s a white man too,” said Jang dryly. “Not everybody got it,” though like its inspiration, Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus” (about Arkansas governor Orval Faubus), those who got it, did.

Among the session’s players was tenor saxophonist Francis Wong, a collaborator of Jang’s with whom he co-found Asian Improv Records (now Asian Improv aRts).The pair also led jazz workshops at Cameron House in Chinatown and developed an educational practice to nurture new generations of Asian American jazz and improvisational musicians.

“During the late ‘80s to ‘90s, we were engaged in what I would describe the multicultural arts wars,” explained Jang of the activism it took to move The City’s disproportionate arts allocations from the already well-funded toward community and grassroots organizations.

“I would describe it as arts apartheid,” said Jang, who by the early ‘90s had succeeded with other arts leaders and task forces to create a more culturally equitable system among San Francisco’s major arts grant and funding organizations. Despite approximately one-third of San Franciscans identifying as Asian American, support for the arts was and is not a given.

“Francis and I, we, had to fight for it,” said Jang, who continues to advocate for justice not only in the arts but on the streets and in the neighborhoods.

On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Rosa Parks’ act of civil disobedience, Jang had assigned one of his students at the Community Music Center in the Mission to learn “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free,” the anthem by composed Billy Taylor popularized by Nina Simone. It was December 2015, the same season Mario Woods was shot by the San Francisco Police Department, and the student didn’t reappear to class until late in 2016. When she returned, she told Jang, “Mario was my cousin. I knew he had his problems, but why did they have to shoot him so many times?”

His student’s grief, the Black Lives Matter movement and the trauma of racial oppression became Jang’s suite, “Can’t Stop Cryin’ For America: Black Lives Matter!” which includes the pieces “More Motherless Children,” for the nine people killed in the act of terrorism at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, and “Why Did They Have To Shoot Him So Many Times?,” characterized as a “role call and meditation of Black victims legally lynched by police.”

Jang is preparing for a return to the stage at the end of this month, outdoors in Chinatown’s Portsmouth Square, in a performance of Paul Flores’ “Never Again, NOW! Brown Dreams.”

“It’s a cry against Trump’s anti-immigrant campaign and the cruelty of locking up Latinos and children in U.S. prison camps,” explained Jang.

San Francisco composer, pianist and activist Jon Jang says, “There’s voter suppression, anti-Asian hate and climate change to fight. It’s not going to get done unless people show up.” (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco composer, pianist and activist Jon Jang says, “There’s voter suppression, anti-Asian hate and climate change to fight. It’s not going to get done unless people show up.” (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

“My wife is Sansei -third generation; her parents and grandparents were in the camp and her older brother and older sister were born as U.S. citizens but branded as enemy aliens,” he said of the World War II era imprisonment of Japanese Americans. “I don’t like the word internment,” the term often used to describe the practice of confining people inside their own country.

Jang and his wife live proximate to Chinatown on Nob Hill where he’s spent the pandemic presenting his instructional work online. And while he’s heard of some atypical neighborhood break-ins and altercations over the past year, including at least one anti-Asian verbal attack, things are mostly quiet on the streets where he walks with plenty of room for social distancing. Lately, there’s even more breathing space in the dense urban environs.

“I live in a TIC [tenancy-in-common] and in the two other units were eight white women, some worked in nonprofit and some in tech and they all moved out and moved back home,” he said. “They were paying five to six thousand dollars a month. People from New Jersey, Santa Barbara and Albany, across the Bay, all want to live in San Francisco,” he said. “But why pay $1,500 to share a room with three other women when you could move back home?” he said.

Some might ask if this last remark was serious or satirical, but with Jang, you either get it or you don’t.

Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” SF Lives will be livestreaming from Bird & Beckett Books on the second Sunday of the month at 10 a.m. beginning June 13. More at and @4DeniseSullivan.

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