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A Space Within a Space: Jazz United Commemorates Asian Pacific American Heritage

Tomoko Omura, whose 'Branches Vol. 2' features guitarist Jeff Miles, pianist Glenn Zaleski, bassist Pablo Menares and drummer Jay Sawyer.
Desmond White
Tomoko Omura, whose 'Branches Vol. 2' features guitarist Jeff Miles, pianist Glenn Zaleski, bassist Pablo Menares and drummer Jay Sawyer.

"Asians are the loneliest Americans," the culture writer Jay Caspian Kang declared, rather famously, in a New York Times Magazine article in 2017.

What he was diagnosing amounts to a pernicious form of marginalization, apart from the prevailing binary in most discussions of race in the United States. "The current vision of solidarity among Asian-Americans is cartoonish and blurry," Kang argued — a fog of nostalgia and sentiment. "Everything else is the confusion of never knowing what side to choose because choosing our own side has so rarely been an option."

Within the African-American art form we call jazz, the Asian-American experience has often similarly functioned as an afterthought, despite myriad expressions of identity by musicians across the spectrum of style. They range from the late baritone saxophonist and firebrand Fred Ho — who once wrote a searching essay about his advocacy for, and subsequent alienation from, the term "Asian American Jazz" — to contemporary figures like saxophonist Kevin Sun and bassist Linda May Han Oh.

So in this episode of Jazz United, we'll talk about how Asian-American musicians have carved out their own spaces within the jazz community, in full dialogue and solidarity with the traditions of Black American music. We'll touch on an array of examples (including some firsthand testimony from Nate's own family), and welcome a special guest: violinist Tomoko Omura, whose new album, Branches Vol. 2, continues a fruitful exploration of Japanese folk music in a modern jazz context.

Music Featured in This Episode:

This I Dig:

Nate: The Marfa Tapes, an album by Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram and Jon Randall

Greg: The Midnight Miracle, a podcast with Talib Kweli, Yasiin Bey and Dave Chappelle

Sarah Kerson has been the producer of Jazz United. This is her final episode — thanks, Sarah! Here's to many more successes, with the least amount of drama.

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Greg Bryant has been a longtime curator of improvisational music. At the age of 3 in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, he was borrowing his father’s records and spinning them on his Fisher Price turntable. Taking in diverse sounds of artistry from Miles Davis, Les McCann, James Brown, Weather Report and Jimi Hendrix gave shape to Greg's musical foundation and started him on a path of nonstop exploration.
A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.