Asian-American jazz lights up Chicago

Abbie VanSickle and Abbie VanSickle

This ain’t your daddy’s jazz.

With a list of musical genres representing everything from big band to fusion to contemporary jazz with a 10-ensemble line up, coordinators of the sixth annual “Asian-American Jazz: Chicago,” say the festival is all about shattering stereotypes.

“By organizing the festival, we hope to change the idea of Asian-American performers,” said festival founder and artistic director Tatsu Aoki.

The festival, centered around performances at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, will run this weekend and will also feature events at other venues, including the Chicago Cultural Center and Hothouse.

Related events began Oct. 5, with “Reminiscing in Swingtime” at the Museum of Contemporary Art and continue through Sunday, Oct. 28. The festival officially gets underway Thursday.

For many, the word “Chicago” conjures images of smoke-filled South Side clubs and jazz legends like Louis Armstrong, but the city continues to be one of the hot spots for up-and-coming jazz talent.

Yet, most of Chicago’s recognized jazz talent seems to come in only two colors, Aoki said: Black and white.

The 43-year-old, an internationally-renowned bassist and composer who has played in Chicago for 20 years and has nearly 50 albums to his credit, is determined to change all that.

Known himself for weaving the intricate, traditional melodies of Asian music such as taiko drumming with avant-garde, improvisational jazz, Aoki said Asian-American composers and musicians have a lot to offer Chicago’s jazz scene and the jazz festival is the best venue for them to gain recognition.

Aoki was born into a family of performers and always knew he wanted to be a musician, but he didn’t know he would serve as one of the most widely recognized intermediaries between traditional Asian music and contemporary American jazz.

“My music, you can call it jazz, you can call it what you like,” he said.

“Music is a part of my life. Every since I was born, it was there.”

Aoki followed through with his desire to pursue music, but discovered that as an Asian American, he faced difficulties gaining recognition for his work. So he decided to create jazz festivals showcasing Asian-American musicians in San Francisco and Chicago.

He said the festivals are one of the few chances for the public to hear the work of Asian musicians.

“One of the main reasons for the festivals is to give recognition to the contributions of Asian Americans whose work is underrated and underexposed,” Aoki said. “Our contribution has not been well-recognized. Organizing the festival is a way to change the idea of Asian performers.”

Aoki said the festival’s impetus has inspired a wide-range of Asian American artists, both locally and internationally renowned, to join Chicago’s jazz scene.

The festival’s focus on the convergence of traditional sounds with contemporary jazz inspired Aoki to create his newest suite, “Rooted: Origins of Now.”

The suite, commissioned by the Chicago Composer Project and designed to showcase the multiple voices of Chicago’s ethnic groups and express patterns of immigration in Chicago, will be performed Saturday at 8 p.m. at the MCA.

Aoki said the 50-minute, 4-movement suite expresses the wide range of traditions and voices in Asian American jazz.

“Jazz is a wide range of musical ideas,” he said. “We all owe a lot to this music.” nyou

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