The San Francisco Asian American Jazz Festival

Mark Izu was the Artistic Director for the San Francisco Asian American Jazz Festival from 1987-2000. The Asian American Jazz Festival, conceived in San Francisco in 1981 by Kearny Street Workshop under the direction of George Leong & Paul Yamazaki, became the oldest running jazz festival in San Francisco. See below for a complete timeline of how Asian American Jazz came to be.

1890's-1930's

Inception of Jazz

African, Latin, Asian, European diaspora led to a cultural assimilation and hybridity that makes American identity unique and jazz music is the soundtrack. Since its inception in circa-1890s New Orleans, the sound of jazz has been both culturally unifying and synonymous with the voice of the marginalized. Discussion of race can be facilitated though music, self-expression and self-determination empowered through artistic endeavor.

Asian Influence in Jazz

The West Coast Asian American jazz circuit is rumored to have a history with the fishing industry, traversing from Vancouver to Mexico. The musicians followed the fishermen who followed the fish and frequented bebop bars along the docks for Filipino and Japanese fishermen and cannery workers. As early as 1914, the LA Mikado Band, a Sousa-style Japanese brass band composed of Issei and Nisei men and women with uniforms, cornets, clarinets, trombones, and tuba, was performing in the Los Angeles area. By the 1930s, there were many jazz musicians both on the mainland and in Hawaii (Nagai, “50 Years of Asian American Jazz”). San Francisco had twelve Chinese cabarets in the early twentieth century, the most famous being Charlie Low’s 1938 Forbidden City (“Cotton-Club of the West” and the inspiration for the 1957 novel Flower Drum Song). Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean dancers and musicians all worked the clubs, including Larry Ching (the Chinese Frank Sinatra), Katy de la Cruz (the Queen of Filipino jazz), and Pearl Wong. Facing closed record company doors, many Asian-American jazz musicians emigrate to Japan.

1940's

Asian-American jazz was forever altered by the influence of Japanese Incarceration (1942-46), the emergent music reflecting the life experience.  “Some concentration camps had their own bands like Manzanar's Jive Bombers” (ibid). Flip Nunez starts his career playing with Teddy Edwards, Fats Navarro has a successful career as a trumpeter. 

1950's

Drummer and Flower Drum Song actor and internee Paul Togawa and Hawaiian sax player Gabe Balthazar became the most well-known Asian American musicians in the 1950s Los Angeles jazz scene. Balthazar appeared in numerous television orchestras. Bebop also flourishes in the Asian-American scene and launches the careers of Filipino artists like Rudy Tenio. Pat Suzuki has first professional performance in Seattle in 1955, she is discovered by Bing Crosby, and becomes the first critically-acclaimed Asian American musician.

1960's

Yusef Lateef is the first to incorporate traditional Chinese instruments into jazz. 1965 The Immigration and Neutrality Act created distinct generational identities within the Asian Pacific American community and transformed the way young artists approached their work and contributions to the American tapestry. The inspiration of jazz, an amalgam of African traditions and American influence combined with the incorporation of traditional Asian instrumentation becomes a metaphor for cultural assimilation.

1970's

San Francisco & The Kearny Street Workshop

In San Francisco, the geographical proximity of the Fillmore (its African-American traditions) abutting Japantown is particularly culturally influential. Redevelopment of the Western Addition and displacement of its African- and Asian-American populations play a role in community coalitions. In the 1970s, a particular sub-genre of jazz begins to emerge in the City by the Bay, influenced by heritage and experience. The Asian American art scene is growing, spawning experimental and multidisciplinary companies that embraced jazz, poetry, theater, and dance, including Asian American Dance Collective, Asian American Theater Company and East West Players.  The early Asian American jazz movement is inspired by kumidaiko (Japanese festival drumming), brought to America by Seiichi Tanaka and San Francisco Taiko Dojo in 1968 and gagaku (Imperial court music), brought to America by Suenobu Togi. 1972 Kearny Street Workshop, the oldest Asian Pacific American multidisciplinary arts organization in the country, is conceived as cultural wing of an Asian-American, social-justice driven movement of the 1970s.  KSW and its East Coast counterpart, the now defunct Basement Project are by-products of generational oppression woven through the fabric of two hundred years of Asian-American experience: nineteenth-century Chinese indentured servitude, twentieth-century Japanese incarceration, and twenty-first century immigrants facing the repercussions and aftermath of decades of failed and uninformed American foreign policy.  Asian-American and Latin-American marginalization are both adjuncts of their elder cousin, African-American racism, and the art reflects the culture.  1974 Hiroshima is founded. 1977 Yoshi Akiba, Kaz Kajimura, and Hiroyuki Hori move their Japanese restaurant to Claremont Avenue in Berkeley and begin building Yoshi’s as a premier location for presenting jazz. “By the late 1970s, some sansei musicians including Gerald Oshita, Russel Baba, and Mark Izu formed ensembles with African American musicians Ray Collins, Lewis Jordan, George Sams and others, rehearsing in community centers and SF Japantown church basements, and performing in local clubs and for fundraisers, rallies and benefit concerts,” asserts Dr. Anthony Brown. 1978 Russel Baba releases seminal album Hisashi. 1979 United Front (feat. Mark Izu, Lewis Jordan, George Sams, and Carl Hoffman) tours Europe.  1980 Hiroshima lands a contract with Arista. United Front releases Path with a Heart.

1980's

Asian American Jazz Festival begins. 

Under the direction of George Leong & Paul Yamazaki and consistent with the vision to produce art “that fully incorporates Asian Pacific American voices informed by our cultural values, historical roots, and contemporary issues,” KSW conceived the Asian American Jazz Festival (AAJF), which during it’s time (1981 – 2006) was the oldest continually-produced jazz festival in San Francisco and an enduring structure for a whole new genre of music: Asian American Jazz. THE SHOW - United Front, Russel Baba/Eddie Moore, Randy Senzaki/Rudy Tenio, Izu/Collins/Yamazaki, Pat Salavar and the Mindinao Band, and the Makoto/Fuji/Shido Quartet 1982 THE SHOW - United Front, San Francisco Taiko Dojo, Jeanne Aiko Mercer/Russel Baba Ensemble, June Okida Kuramoto/Derek Nakamoto & Friends, Gerald Oshita, San Francisco Kulintang Ensemble. 1983 Paul Yamasaki becomes principal producer of the third festival, relieving writer Leong. Redress Act introduced. THE SHOW - Toshiko Akiyoshi, Mark Izu/Jon Jang Sextet, Guapo Lee/Joshua Redmen Ensemble. 1984 THE SHOW -  Filipino American Jazz Piano Summit – Bobby Enriquez, Flip Nunez, Rudy Tenio Sextet + Space Shuttle Omnibus, San Jose Taiko. 1985 THE SHOW - James Newton/Allan Iwohara Ensemble, Deems Tsutakawa, Maiden Japan, Visions. 1986 Involved in the festival since its inception, composer and bassist Mark Izu becomes Artistic Director and leads AAJF to be the principal champion and incubator of one of the most politically-charged movements in American musical history.  

Influence on Asian American Jazz

Izu nurtures the forum of AAJF as an incubator for Asian American jazz and as a forum for the careers of friends, genre-pioneers, and local and national icons like Smithsonian scholar Anthony Brown; Ford Foundation Visionary Jon Jang; Rockefeller Fellow Francis Wong; sax and shakuhachi master Gerald Oshita (1942-1992); and pioneer Russel Baba; as well as Los Angeles piano and shamisen player Glenn Horiuchi (1955-2000); and New York composer and saxophonist Fred Ho (1957-2014). Asian American jazz musicians are refining their art and creating and producing music that is culturally unique. 1987 Resolution 57 is passed (see above). Jon Jang, Francis Wong, and Fred Ho found Asian Improv Records. The Asian American Jazz Festival becomes increasingly imperative, representing lineage, identity and self-actualization for soon-to-be internationally-renowned Asian-American jazz voices like MacArthur Fellow Vijay Ayers; Guggenheim fellow, composer and komungo artist Jin Hi Kim; and piano/koto master Miya Masaoka. THE SHOW -  Sumi Tonooka, Robbie Kwock Quintet, Jason Hwang, Jon Jang and the Pan Asian Arkestra. 1988 Ronald Reagan signs the Civil Liberties Act, authorizing redress. Jon Jang and Francis Wong move to San Francisco and found Asian Improv aRts. THE SHOW - The Glenn Horiuchi Trio Plus One, Mark Izu, Jason Hwang. 1989 Aislinn Scofield of the Asian Art Museum takes a greater role in assisting Izu grow the San Francisco Asian American Jazz Festival.

1990's

Cutivating a Genre

Izu curates the AAJF, presenting jazz luminaries including Toshiko Akiyoshi, Geroge Lewis (with the AAJF Ensemble), the late Horace Tapscott, Tootie Heath, Von Freeman, Zakir Hussein, June Kuramoto, James Newton, Akira Tana, Keiko Matsui, Pete Escovedo, the late Eddie Moore, and multi-disciplinary artists featuring butoh dancer Koichi Tamano, DJ Qbert, Kulingtang Arts, San Francisco Taiko Dojo, SF Arts Commissioner and poet Janice Mirikitani, and Genny Lim. In addition, the festival showcases young, emerging artists like a 12-year-old Joshua Redman. The majority of the annual festivals are held in Golden Gate Park at the Asian Art Museum, co-produced by AAM’s Aislinn Scofield. 1990   THE SHOW -  Jon Jang and the Pan Asian Arkestra, J-Town Jazz Ensemble, Miya Masaoka & Susan Hayase. 1991   THE SHOW - Tenth Anniversary: Asian American Jazz Today, Russel Baba Trio, TanaReid Trio. 50 Years of Asian American Jazz, The Forbidden City Era of Asian American Jazz with Larry Ching and Alan Gin, Ramon Lazo Quartet, Anthony Brown's Uptown Showtown 1992 Asian Improv Arts releases Mark Izu’s Circle of Fire and Miya Masaoka’s Compositions   THE SHOW - Women in Jazz: Kazu Matsui Quartet featuring Keiko Matsui, Miya Masaoka and Ancient Art, Lee Pui Ming, Francis Wong and the Great Wall Ensemble with Genny Lim, Betty Wong and the Phoenix Spring Ensemble featuring Nellie Wong, Mary Nomura. 1993   THE SHOW - The Filipino Legacy: Bobby Enriquez, Jessica Hagedorn, Flip & Dana Nunez. 1994   THE SHOW - Japanese Influence in Jazz: Roscoe Mitchell New Chamber Ensemble, Tootie Heath, Ushio Torikai, June Kuramoto, and Kenny Endo 1995 Mark Izu and Brenda Wong Aoki found First Voice, presenting “music and stories of people between worlds (Wong-Aoki).” First Voice becomes the official producer of San Francisco’s Asian American Jazz Festival. In its heyday, AAJF spans four days, is presented in four venues, and features over 150 artists.  THE SHOW - Bay Area Innovators: Anthony Brown and San Jose Taiko, Jon Jang and Chen Jiebing, Time Code (Francis Wong and Tatsu Aoki, Vijay Iyer and Brother of Diaspora + Concert of a Thousand Cranes: A 50th Year Commemoration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki feat. Mark Izu, Anthony Brown, Miya Masaoka, and The San Francisco Gagaku Society.

Cultural Homage

Asian-American musicians add their unique influences to jazz. Mark Izu studies with traditional Japanese masters June Kuramoto (koto), Togi Suenobu, and Kenny Endo (taiko) and Chinese master Liu QiChao to incorporate traditional Asian music into jazz forums. “From studying Gagaku came proficiency on orchestral instruments and musical conceptions of the fundamental principles of space and time. In the concept of Ma, space is not conceived as emptiness but rather a charged void, an essential balance with sound, yin and yang. Time in most Western music is regular, measured, and assigned a meter or time signature that everyone follows. In some Gagaku compositions, time is measured in breath-lengths, directed by wind instruments (Brown).” Izu and Wong-Aoki provide workshops to the Asian American musicians and the greater San Francisco arts community through First Voice. Other San Francisco Asian American jazz pioneers follow suit: The majority of Jon Jang’s symphonic works chronicle the Chinese-American experience in San Francisco. Francis Wong’s mission is “continuity through culture.” 1996 Several AAJFs are dedicated to the collaboration between African- and Asian-American musicians. Izu invites saxophonists Joseph Jarman and Jon Freeman, reaffirming a connection with the African American jazz community.  Asian Improv aRts and Tatsuo Aoki commence production of Asian American Jazz Festival Chicago. THE SHOW - The Soul of Inspiration: Fatty Boom Boom with Vijay Iyer; Mark Izu Bass Quartet feat. Lisle Ellis; Fire Ensemble with Tasu Aoki and von Freeman; Joseph Jarman/Glenn Horiuchi Quartet; The Pacific Rim Ensemble feat. Melecio Magdaluyo, Robbie Kwock and special guest Pete Escovedo.  1997   THE SHOW - Blues from Asia: Kongar-ool Ondar with Paul Pena and Yoko Noge and the Jazz Me Blues.  California Hip Hop: DJ QBert of the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, Key-Kool and Rhettmatic. 1998 Dr. Anthony Brown founds the Asian American Orchestra. THE SHOW - Izu invites Horace Tapscott to the SFAAJF, who premieres “Two Shades of Soul” with collaborator Jon Jang and dedicates the new work to the Festival. 1999 THE SHOW – Far East Suite (written by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, adapted by Anthony Brown) Anthony Brown & the Asian American Orchestra

2000's

2000 Asian American Jazz Orchestra is nominated for a Grammy. THE SHOW - Circle of Fire feat. Mark Izu, Zakir Hussain, Suenobu Togi, Jon Jang and Melody of China; Gathering of Ancestors feat. Francis Wong; Wave Twisters by DJ QBert2001 Izu steps down after fourteen years as Artistic Director of AAJF to focus on film composition. He is succeeded by Alliance for Emerging Artists co-founder Jeff Chan. 2006 San Francisco AAJF ceases production 2007 San Francisco Filipino American Jazz Festival is founded. 2008 Asian American Jazz Festival moves to Los Angeles. 2009 Asian American Jazz founder, pioneer, and AAJF Director Emeritus Mark Izu wins an Emmy for Bolinas 52. 

2010's

2014 Los Angeles Asian Heritage Jazz Festival is founded.

Recordings and Preservation

2015 Director Emeritus Izu is awarded a three-year grant from the city of San Francisco to preserve, as the basis of a permanent AAJF historical record, one hundred-thirty archival recordings (audio and video) of live performances from the Asian American Jazz Festival—priceless, one-time concerts chronicling a pivotal point in the history of Asian American Jazz during its most influential twenty years, 1981-2001. The originals will be archived by the San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design with copies at the National Japanese American Historical Society.  This archive will be a part of the repository of records of Asian American Jazz and the Asian American Jazz Festival.