Categories: News Date: Oct 18, 2011 Title: Asian-American Jazz Fest blossoms again
By Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune Arts critic
The closing of the Velvet Lounge and HotHouse in recent years has been tough on at least one remarkable group of Chicago musicians: its innovative Asian-American jazz artists.
Inventive improvisers such as bassist Tatsu Aoki, pianist-vocalist Yoko Noge and saxophonist Jeff Chan had played there regularly for years, and most prominently during the annual Chicago Asian American Jazz Festival. Unfortunately, no room has emerged to replace the Velvet and HotHouse as nightly incubators of new ideas in jazz.
So the Asian-American musical community has adapted, as best as it can, staging its 16th annual fest this weekend at a far more mainstream venue, Andy's Jazz Club, and other spots.
"It's a celebration and a victory to be at Andy's – ironically, it's good that we can be at a place like that," says Aoki, pointing to a centrally located room that draws a wider, more general audience than either the Velvet or HotHouse typically did.
So when this year's festival reaches its climax with Saturday night's evening-length performance at Andy's, listeners who likely never encountered a mixture of Asian folkloric music with American jazz will hear what they've been missing. When the festival ventured into Andy's last year for the first time, the place was packed.
"But there's not a consistency," adds Aoki, meaning there's still no club where an array of Asian-American experimenters can develop their ideas – and build their audience – on a regular basis.
"With HotHouse and the Velvet, once or twice a month you could see a wide range of Asian American musicians. We still need some alternative venue."
Until such a spot takes root, however, Chicago's nomadic Asian-American jazz musicians will have to make the most of special events, such as the recent Hyde Park Jazz Festival, which presented Aoki's large Miyumi Project, and the Asian American Jazz Festival that begins Friday.
Even the festival, however, has not been easy to present, with funding scarce in these hard economic times.
"The prolonged recession does not help," says Noge, who has championed the event since the beginning.
"But we continue to do it for the same reason we started the festival: to give musicians a voice. Otherwise, musicians are too busy just trying to survive."
The festival, in other words, gives the city's Asian American jazz community a chance to play its most daring, ground-breaking music – something other than the more conventional repertoire required at jobs that pay the bills. By presenting cherished ensembles and key repertoire during a high-profile festival weekend, these artists can express what it means to be a Japanese or Chinese or Korean musician working in Chicago jazz.
And though the opportunities are fewer than when HotHouse and the Velvet thrived, the cause remains as important as ever.
"The music is still building," says Aoki, who's staging this year's festival on a budget of less than $10,000, with support from the Illinois Arts Council, the City of Chicago and the Joyce Foundation, among others.
"In the last 16 years, we've had down times before," says Aoki. "But I think it will cycle back.
"We can't quit. The music goes on."
Following is the complete schedule for the 16th annual Chicago Asian American Jazz Festival; for further details, visit aajazz.org.
Aakash Mittal; Tatsu Aoki's Shamisen Jazz Venture, featuring Francis Wong; 9 p.m. at the Logan Square/Avondale Arts Center, 2800 N. Milwaukee Ave., second floor; $12; 773-772-4616.
Jeff Chan's Chicago Clarinet Conglomerate; 2 p.m. Saturday in the Claudia Cassidy Theater of the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St.; free; 312-744-6630 or chicagoculturalcenter.org.
Steve Hashimoto/Jeff Chan Duo, 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.; Mai Sugimoto Band, 6:45 to 7:45 p.m.; Gary Tu Trio, 8 to 9 p.m.; Yoko Noge's Japanesque, 9:30 to 10: 30 p.m.; Esther Hana Trio, 10:45 to 11:45 p.m.; Jeff Chan Quartet, 12 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. Sunday; at Andy's Jazz Club, 11 E. Hubbard St.; $10 before 8 p.m.; $15 after 8 p.m.; 312-642-6805 or andysjazzclub.com.