Self-described as a multi-dimensional “composer, pianist, artistic director, and public intellectual,” Jon Jang is also an innovator.
As a child, Jang played electric keyboard when most kids in his former hometown of Palo Alto, Calif., played guitar and drums. He was the only kid he knew that could simultaneously play the melody and accompaniment of “Heart and Soul” at the age of 13. Jang also played French horn and trumpet prior to the piano. And, at the age of 19, he was inspired to major in piano performance at Oberlin Conservatory of Music, after being mesmerized by the music he heard at Keystone Korner, a jazz club in San Francisco that featured such African American artists as pianist McCoy Tyner and multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
Jang has since recorded with such talented musicians as drummer Max Roach, flutist James Newton, and saxophonist David Murray. His ensembles have toured at major concert halls and music festivals in China, South Africa, Europe, Canada, and the United States. He has also received numerous awards and special recognition, including a mid-career visionary artist award from the Ford Foundation, the NEA Jazz Composition Fellowship, and a grant from The Library of Congress, to name a few. There is no category for the all-original music he plays. He simply calls it, “the music of Jon Jang.”
“It’s something that is, to me, very natural,” he said.
Much like his music, Jang’s life has encompassed a series of new beginnings and transformations, from his father’s unexpected death in a commercial airplane crash over the Grand Canyon in 1956 when Jang was two years old to the discovery that the surname of his grandfather was Woo. In a common act of resistance against the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, his paternal grandfather became a “paper son” by claiming U.S. citizenship by purchasing false birth certificate papers from a Chinese father named Jang who had American citizenship. This inspired his three-piece movement, “Paper Son, Paper Songs.”
“The music that I’ve learned comes from China,” he said. “It’s about memory. It’s the importance of recognizing memory before innovation.”
A majority of his music has given a musical voice to the Chinese American history that has been largely silent, along with a recognition of its evolving culture. He has composed a number of works dedicated to Chinese Americans, some of which include “Two Flowers on One Stem,” dedicated to his mother and “The Chinese American Symphony,” a work that pays tribute to the Chinese who built the first transcontinental railroad in the United States.
His recent original work, “Portrait of Sun Yat-sen,” inspired by American composer Aaron Copland’s orchestral work, “Lincoln Portrait,” premiered on Sept. 25, 2011. “Portrait of Sun Yat-sen,” celebrates the centennial of the Chinese Revolution and China’s first provisional president, who was influenced by American democracy and the writings of Lincoln. It references both American and Chinese folk songs, such as “Variation on the Battle Hymn of the Republic” and Cantonese folk songs that Sun Yat-sen would have known from his rural childhood.
“There is an erroneous assumption that Chinese culture is brought over in a steamship to be preserved and never be changed,” said Chang, adding that his music reflects that evolving tradition.
Last February, Jang was a featured performer in the Chinese Expulsion Remembrance Project program at Seattle’s Cleveland High School Auditorium. No stranger to Seattle, Jang has performed and lectured here upon numerous occasions since the 1980’s, even serving on the Seattle Arts Commission in 1997 and collaborating with Seattle artists on a variety of projects. During his last visit, in October, he lectured at Cornish College of the Arts and the University of Washington, in addition to a solo piano performance at the Seattle Art Museum.
Jang presently resides in San Francisco and continues to serve as an advocate for social justice through education and the arts.