Jason Kao Hwang
by Piotr Michalowski
From the October, 2008 issue
There are currently two disparate trends in the practice of jazz and improvised music in our country. One is firmly committed to maintaining a strictly defined tradition and therefore requires long apprenticeship, now mainly done in schools. The second trend looks to the future and claims an openness to other cultures and other musics that seeks to embrace the globalization of the arts. This fusion of different artistic traditions can often lead to faceless eclecticism, but in talented hands and minds it can lead to powerful individualism. Such is the case with American-born violinist and composer Jason Kao Hwang, whose parents emigrated from China.
Hwang's formal college education was not in music but in other areas-he has a degree in film and television from NYU. Though he soon dedicated his life to music, he has always maintained his interest in all the arts. He first came into prominence with Commitment, a band that included the great bassist William Parker, and then as part of the cast of the Broadway drama M. Butterfly, for which he helped to arrange the music and played the violin. In 1993 he organized the Far East Side Band, which brought together Asian and Asian American musicians and a tuba player by the name of Joe Daley. He continues to lead various groups to this day, and is so busy that it is impossible to summarize his achievements in a few paragraphs. He has played with many of the greatest musicians of our time, such as Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill; led his own groups; made many recordings; written chamber works and an opera; and composed music for numerous films.
From the beginning Hwang has worked as a performer and composer, but he has also consciously used his art to explore, create, and discover his own identity as an Asian American. He credits a 1992 trip to Korea with awakening his sense of ethnic distinctiveness, but he does not simply see himself as Chinese;
his perspective is both Western and pan-Asian, and he embraces many different forms, from jazz to classical to folk. As he once expressed it, "With our now global culture, all of us possess multicultural qualities, none of which are the exclusive possession of any one ethnicity, but determined by choice, willful or unconscious, for reasons deeply rooted in personal history. These qualities flow into each other like water."
Hwang continues to play the violin, but he works with musicians who play both Western and Eastern stringed instruments; this has led him to learn about their unique qualities and even adjust his own technique to play with them. His recent composition "In the Garden of Morning Glories" features the Chinese erhu (a two-string violin), pipa (lute), yanqin (hammered dulcimer), and guzheng (twenty-one-string zither), as well as his own violin.
Hwang's many talents will be on display at the avant Edgefest, where he will lead his aptly named group Edge on Friday, October 17, at the Firefly Club.
[Originally published in October, 2008.]
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