An Interview with Akira Tana

from AA Music
interview by Theo Feng
- (Oct. 98)

(Thanks to Mary Huey for transcribing the interview.)

This jazz drummer, who's Japanese American, has had a long career. He's played and recorded with people like Art Farmer, the Heath Brothers, Jim Hall, James Moody, Lena Horne, and Ruth Brown. His best-known recordings may be the series released under the artistic name, TanaReid. The name comes from a collaboration with bassist, Rufus Reid, as co-leaders of a changing ensemble.

I caught up with him in Baltimore, when he'd arrived to participate on a review panel for the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation. We had a long, wide-ranging discussion, some of which appears below.

On Asian American music and jazz
The term, "Asian American", is one that Tana is no stranger to. In the mid or late 80's, he coproduced with Cobi Narita several Asian American jazz festivals in New York. Later, he formed a group called the Asian American Jazz Trio that put out a CD or two on the Evidence label. The story behind it was that in 1990 or 91, he had been invited to perform in the San Francisco Asian American Jazz Festival. He asked Rufus Reid and pianist Kei Akagi to join him for the gig. Not long afterwards, he had an opportunity to record the trio for King Records, a Japanese label he'd known for many years. He decided to name the group, the "Asian American Jazz Trio." The recording was licensed by Evidence Records and released stateside. The trio has performed a few times since.

Given that background, I wondered what thoughts he might have on applying the term "Asian American" to music or jazz.

Tana: -- I've... had some interesting discussions with some people in the Asian-American music group...
What is it? What does it represent? Because when you hear the music, you pretty much see the same group, or the same people that are always presented and are always presented under this umbrella, under this name of "Asian-American jazz."

Q: So the question could be phrased, "Is it the people, or is it the music?"
Tana: Yeah, that's true. That is the question. Is it the people or is it the music? For example, there are a couple of musicians who are Asian or Asian-American, but they haven't really taken the initiative to become part of this scene, and I wonder why. Is it because they play a different kind of music that will not really let them become identified with the kind of music that is being presented by these kinds of groups? So it's an interesting question.

For example, Kei Akagi isn't really a part of that scene. And I'm not involved so much, maybe because we're geographically separated from the scene, but maybe it's because the music that we play and the projects we're involved in, isn't really part of that scene. And it's interesting -- I don't know how to find the right word to express it... it's true for anything.

[Say] you're involved in the community, the Asian community, the Asian-American community. Do you stay within that realm and become part of it, or do you venture out of it, and try to explore different possibilities with different, other kinds of groups or other kinds of people that may not have any connection with that core group, ethnically speaking? Or culturally speaking?

On knowing musical legacy
Tana: ...I hope that the younger Asian-American artists and musicians, whether they're into hip-hop or rapping or whatever they're doing -- they can't help but be part of it, because it's really part of their stuff... But they should also be aware of what came in terms of the generation before them, in terms of the kinds of things Hiroshima has done, or even John Jang, or Mark Izu, or Kei [Akagi], or [Toshiko] Akiyoshi...

Q: It's interesting because a couple of years back, there was this tour of some rock bands -- I guess you call them alternative rock bands -- Seam is one. It's led by a Korean-American guy out of Chicago. Another group is Versus. They're Filipino-American, mostly. They're out of New York. I asked them, "What do you listen to? Have you heard of Hiroshima?" And one of them said, "I think that's a jazz band."

Tana: But that's how they're marketed. Hiroshima's marketed [as a jazz band] because they can't find another place for them. It's like smooth jazz, but it's like R&B. Basically, it's like soul music. They were doing tours, opening for R&B groups.