"Everyone in the world is musical"

A conversation with the great jazz musician and educator Victor Lin on race, Asian America, our innate musical ability, and the power of jazz to create community. Plus, some links for the week.

Albert:

I met Victor Lin on the basketball court. The Christian fellowship we were both involved with ran a weekly game, and I had decided to check it out. Around this time Nike was running a commercial that paid homage to the funk era, with a short cameo from Bootsy Collins:

I overheard Victor talking about the commercial, and we immediately bonded over it and became fast friends. (The other Asian-Americans at the game seemed perplexed by our delight—none of them had heard of Bootsy.)

At the time, Victor was getting a Ph.D. in music education at Teacher’s College, and he took me, a college sophomore, under his wing. I was drawn to his zany, forceful personality: he talks fast, gestures expansively with his hands, and will race unpredictably from a basketball analogy to an argument about the state of music education today. But I was also fascinated by his choices: he’d chosen to be a teacher because he wanted kids to fall in love with music. He’d chosen to become not just any kind of musician, but a jazz musician.

Of course, I was moved by his music as well. One of my favorite albums, which I still play regularly, is his Live at Cobi’s Place. (Here’s a track from it.) His talent overflows: he’s equally brilliant on the violin and the piano, and in one of my favorite clips of him he transitions seamlessly from one to the other as he demonstrates the blues:

As a professional musician, Victor plays all around New York. He’s committed to free public performances—he does an annual weeklong stint at Bryant Park, complete with singalong; during the pandemic he performed with his trio at Penn Station. He also directs the jazz program at the Calhoun School in Manhattan and teaches jazz ensemble classes at Columbia. He’s been on the faculty at the Stanford Jazz Workshop, where he gives concerts every summer.

We talked to Victor about jazz and race, and about the paradox of overwhelmingly white institutions teaching jazz music without exploring the lived experience of Black people. He thinks through his own place in the culture, wondering whether he is perceived as white. He considers what relationship he wants his kids to have with music. He explores his “core belief that everyone in the world is musical”—and laments that we’re encouraged to discount it. And he discusses the power of jazz to create community.


Albert: Let’s start at the beginning: how did you become a professional jazz musician?

Victor: Perhaps the greatest challenge of my artistic life has been feeling comfortable calling myself a “jazz musician,” or even a “professional musician” of any sort. Almost all successful jazz musicians I’ve met started young. But I got such a late start. I heard my first jazz recordings as a junior in high school. I joined a high school jazz band and thought everyone was an expert improviser.

I was completely clueless when I went to college. I remember the first audition at the University of Washington vividly. It was fall 1991. It went like this: every interested jazz student showed up in the basement rehearsal room of the music building, Room 35. About forty or fifty of us filed in. One guy started calling out combinations of people to get up and play together. Mind you, this was in front of everyone. It was terrifying.

Some students just got up and shredded. Some struggled. Some barely played anything and were told they were cool. (They were the advanced ones who had been there for a while.) After just about everyone had played something, there were a handful of us newbies who were then marched up to the scaffold and musically hung by the instructor’s ropes. Or it felt like that.

We were made to play in front of each other when we clearly had no idea what we were doing. I think I struggled through one or two choruses of the blues and got cut off. Okay, I was told, we might be able to get you a spot for lessons, but you probably won’t be placed in a combo because there are too many piano players. Next!

I began my jazz career at the University of Washington as the lowest-ranked pianist out of eight.

I met one of my best friends that day, another Asian-American jazz guy named Gary Fukushima. He was studying classical piano at UW but also trying to get into jazz. Like me, he struggled through that audition. We wound up hanging out. (Gary is now an outstanding figure in the jazz world—he’s one of the founding members of the Los Angeles Jazz Collective, one of the best jazz pianists on the scene, and a renowned educator, directing jazz studies at Cal State Northridge. On top of that, he was recently hired by Down Beat.) He’s one of the best people I know in the world, not to mention a world-class musical artist.

Back then, though, we were just two Asian kids trying to figure out jazz in an epically white environment with no clue what we were doing. I’m a first-generation American-born Taiwanese. I didn’t grow up in an environment where I was told that musical talent was important, or that it would amount to anything significant.

It wasn’t until I studied with Kenny Barron that I felt that I could make it as a jazz musician. I had discovered his album, People Time, in college, and it changed my life. I decided to move to the East Coast to study with him.

At first, his lessons were frustrating. He’d have a piano, I’d have a piano, and we’d go at it back and forth. We’d play for thirty minutes, and he’d say one thing. We’d play another twenty minutes, and then the lesson was over. I didn’t like that; I wanted him to tell me what to do.

Over three years, he always told me two things: “You just need to go and play” and “You’re ready.” Kenny gave me the confidence that I could hang with the best.

But in many ways I still feel like that clueless seventeen-year-old, wondering if he’s ever going to become a legitimate jazz artist. It’s not exactly impostor syndrome; I know I’m a gifted and skilled musician. It’s just that I wonder if any of those musical skills are valued. I struggle with the idea of artistic significance and the importance of music.

Michelle: It seems like you wish you had been pushed toward jazz at a young age. Does that mean part of you feels that if children have gifts those gifts should be cultivated? Does part of you wish you’d been tiger-parented in music? Which raises another question: you’re a parent of two (adorable) little boys—what relationship do you want them to have with music?

VL: This is one I think about all the time. The answer is pretty simple: I want them to love it. I want them to sing, dance, play, listen, engage, talk about, participate in, and be part of music.

Being a musician is not that different from being musical; one of my core beliefs is that everyone in the world is musical, and that everyone in the world is also a musician. The problem is that our society extols virtuosos, prodigies, mutant talent outliers, and other such extreme oddities of behavior—people who practice something constantly for thousands of hours—so much that most everyone else discounts their own ability to be musical.

As a result, people neglect their everyday musical development. Of course, there’s no reason for such an all-or-nothing, feast-or-famine, binary approach. One’s ability to cook, play a sport, write a letter, tell a story—I see music as another part of how you interact with life on an everyday basis. Why does music have to be idolized in such a bizarre, exclusive way?

One thing I’ve discovered over my life as a music educator is that music is not hard. It’s not hard at all. Society makes it hard. Well, that is to say a society which holds up conservatory-level European-based Western musical foundations as the core of what “civilized” and “cultured” music and music education are “supposed” to be. The average person who takes piano lessons for a while plays infinitely better than a person who doesn’t know anything about the piano at all, and yet the majority of the world doesn’t really care because our modern society has relegated musical performances to screens, big stages, public arenas, places where gatekeepers have to give their approval in order to “present” musicians to the audience.

But music-making has so little to do with concertizing, being a professional, being famous, being super talented—it has everything to do with experiencing life and figuring out how to navigate it with this amazing sonic medium, this rich cultural palette that can take you places both physical and metaphysical, simply by making and engaging in sound.

It’s not important to me that my kids take official piano lessons, or music lessons of any sort. What’s more significant is that they show an interest in it or begin to ask questions about it and develop a curiosity on their own. (And the actual answer to “What instrument is he going to play?” is “All of them. Because I’m his dad.”)

AW: I was struck by your saying that the University of Washington jazz scene was predominantly white. How do we explain this, given that the jazz tradition itself is predominantly Black? Is this a Washington thing? Is this a jazz in higher education thing?

VL: I think it’s both. It’s definitely a Washington thing—the student demographic at UW in the 1990s was overwhelmingly white. But I think you could generalize this to jazz in higher education more broadly: that an overwhelmingly white institution dedicates a portion of its musical studies program to historically Black music reflects how jazz has evolved over time to become a product that can be sold within the halls of academia.

Of course, this discrepancy raises larger historical and social questions that explain why my experience with jazz feels so disjointed. Most students look at the “product”—the music, the record, the performance—and see how much of it they can re-create. I don’t think jazz students put themselves in the shoes of the Black musicians who pioneered the art form.

MK: How do you think you’re perceived in these spaces, as an Asian American?

VL: Honestly, I don’t know. [long pause] One summer at Stanford, we had a faculty conversation about gender and why we didn’t have enough women playing jazz. One of my friends asked me—perhaps realizing suddenly that I wasn’t white—“Victor, I hope you’re not offended by this, but when you play, do people think of you as white?”

MK: What was that person’s race?  

VL: This was a white person asking me if I was seen as white. I was about to say yes. But then I stopped myself because I realized, I don’t know what it’s like to be white. How would I know if I were being treated as a white person?

When I was younger, I used to try to get away from being Asian. I would try to do this through the size of my personality. To be honest, I really wanted to be white for a long time. I wanted to be lumped in with white people. Growing up, I was probably one of the least “Asian” Asian Americans you’d ever meet. I struggled to get away from everything I thought was associated with “Asianness.” I just absolutely hated everything about what I saw in the mirror. I actually think that’s probably a common thing among most Asian Americans.

AW: But if you were so immersed in jazz history and music, wouldn’t you want to be Black?

VL: Are you kidding me? That seemed impossible. It’s much easier to blend in with whiteness, or aspire to that white degree of success, than to change one’s entire physical appearance, right? Also, I grew up in such predominantly white spaces—before high school, I might have encountered all of three Black kids in person.

The recent BLM movements have really pushed me to reflect on my relationship to Blackness. The four most important musical figures in my life have all been Black men. (I pay tribute to them in a blog post here.) My junior symphony conductor was a Black man, Paul Elliott-Cobbs. He was so passionate and was the coolest guy; he was conducting Tchaikovsky to teenagers, trying to get the best out of us. The first jazz pianist I heard in person that I really wanted to sound like was a guy named Dehner Franks, who played at a hotel in Seattle. My first jazz teacher on faculty at the University of Washington, Marc Seales, was the only Black man in the building. Then, at Rutgers, I studied with Kenny Barron, a jazz legend. So without really even thinking about it, my foundational musical role models were all Black men.

But I never thought too deeply, until the past few years, about how their life experiences could have been different from mine.

One of the most jarring experiences of my life, something I remember as if it happened yesterday, took place in the late ’90s. I had just moved to New Jersey, and it was one of the first times I went to the Village Vanguard. You know that area, right? Seventh Avenue, big stretch of road. It can get pretty deserted. Early on, I was so paranoid walking around downtown. I don’t know if you experienced this at all, but I had heard so many stories growing up about crime in the big city. So the entire time I was just thinking, Don’t get mugged. Don’t get mugged.

A mutual friend introduced me to the pianist, Anthony, who was playing that night. After the show, we’re hanging out at the bar, just talking. He was so great, you know, and I remember thinking, You’re so cool. He has to head out first, and I hang out in the club for another thirty minutes. When I leave, I see a Black dude in a hoodie just standing by the door. What do you think my first reaction is?

AW: You got scared?

VL: Yeah, my first thought is, “Oh, man, I hope this guy doesn’t mug me.” But then I get a little closer, I realize that it’s Anthony. And I’m like, “Anthony! Why are you still here?” What was his response? Because the fucking cabs won’t pick up a Black man down here.

In that moment, my heart shattered. First, I was just so embarrassed. I can’t tell you how much shame just cascaded over me in that one moment. And then I felt angry. And then I felt helpless.

So I said to Anthony, “Yo, come on, I’ll give you a ride home.” And he was like, “You sure?” I was like, “Yeah, man, come on, it’s no problem.” But I was shaking.

I realized that my musical education had failed me. Generally, one doesn’t go to music school to become an activist. One goes to music school to carve out a career in music. This was certainly the case when I decided my sophomore year to major in jazz studies. I had no ambitions to become familiar with the ugly racial history of America. And I didn’t think about how my identity as an Asian American would be viewed or developed through the lens of jazz. All I knew was that jazz piano was awesome, I was getting kinda good at it, and I wanted to play jazz because I loved it and it was cool.

In all of my years as a jazz educator, however, I’ve come to realize how the connection between jazz and the Black experience has been relegated to academic acknowledgement. We have this illustrious list of jazz heavyweights any musician can rattle off: Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Fletcher Henderson, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Miles Davis, Coleman Hawkins, Max Roach, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Wes Montgomery, Cannonball Adderley, Clifford Brown, Dizzy Gillespie. The list goes on.

Yet these musicians are taught in music school as canonical figures whose worth is primarily found in liner notes and recorded output. Their personal lives are consigned to a sidebar, or a series of interesting factoids. Very few people talk about how these Black artists lived in a segregated and openly racist America. And they don’t offer deep analysis and reflection with regard to their daily existence as Black musicians—as actual, real people trying to live daily in America.

Jazz musicians who graduate from “jazz school” have had an education focused almost exclusively on musical output rather than awareness, knowledge, or empathy for the Black American experience.

MK: You’ve spoken so powerfully about how jazz education marginalizes racial justice. If you had the power to change jazz education, what else would you change?

VL: I’d change the overwhelmingly toxicity in music conservatories and professional music environments. It can be a terribly lonely, competitive, and corrosive world.

There’s almost never any talk about the daily questions facing a musician. How do you get a job? How do you get insurance? How much money do you need to make and how do you do it? We need to tackle more about music as a livelihood and other socioeconomic questions.

And there’s a refusal to address broader questions. There’s never a question about the role of music within a society. Is it actually something that you should fight for? Why? We need to define why it matters.

Some will say that music school is supposed to just teach music, and not social history, politics, and engagement with current events. But music has always been informed by history and politics. If music is a language, to use it only to entertain a select few is an absurd waste of its power and reach. Unfortunately, as everyone knows, music is often treated as a commodity to be bought, sold, produced, and used for personal, economic, and financial gain.

I think most people who think about jazz in a casual manner when it’s brought up in conversation have the same sorts of thoughts. Wow, you play jazz? Cool! I love jazz. End thought. Most people don’t think, Wow, you play jazz? What does that mean? Are you connected with the Black community through the historically Black American lens of jazz music as an Asian American who primarily works with and plays for white peers? Does the white domination of jazz education have an effect on the way you view yourself or the artform? Cool. I love jazz.

But I think there’s been a change. A lot of younger musicians want their music to matter. By all accounts, we’ve arrived at this point where if you’re a jazz musician, you have an obligation to do anti-racist work.

AW: What do you think anti-racist work in jazz looks like?

VL: Well, the real short answer is I’m not sure. I’m still thinking through how an anti-racist education could replace our traditional jazz curricula. But I know what anti-racist work feels like.

Obviously, the starting point is to feel really troubled by all the racism around us. And that should make you want to do something about it. You know, if you live in a community where there are no Black people, you can say Black Lives Matter but you have no Black lives in your life, right? So, to me, it’s imperative to make an effort to get to know people who are different from you.

And that’s where I feel like jazz ensembles are really important spaces to create those relationships. I stopped teaching the technical stuff in my ensembles a long time ago. I mean, I still do to an extent, because the majority of the people I teach want to go on to some sort of professional career. But in all of my ensembles my main goal is to generate relationships and friendships. I try to teach that no matter what you’re playing, you have to learn how to adapt your music to what people around you are doing. I want them to know that their playing can leave a deep imprint on other people.

AW: So what is that effect? If we believe that there’s something powerful about this music and this musical tradition, what is powerful about it?

VL: More than anything, I think it’s about the power to create community. There was a year I had this Israeli drummer and this Egyptian guitarist. And as they were telling me, it’s amazing because without this music you don’t have an Israeli and an Egyptian kid playing together in the same band. And they’re playing American blues. It was the first time I was forced to wrap my head around it, because we Asian Americans are usually so distanced from the situation in the Middle East. It runs so deep.

And I think there’s another power. So many people are afraid to improvise, compose, speak, and create in front of each other. The jazz ensemble is a place where every single member of the community can feel empowered. If there’s anything I want my students to take away from my classes, I want them to find their own voices.

But it doesn’t end there. Jazz teaches us how to listen to each other. I have a mantra with my students. I ask them: “What’s your job?” And they yell back, “To make everybody better.” It’s not enough to find your voice: you have to listen to other voices.


Some notes:

  • We loved this tune, “Song, As Always,” from Gary Fukushima’s 2009 album, As Always.

  • Victor recommends three albums for those interested in getting into jazz: Wynton Marsalis’s Marsalis Standard Time Vol. 1, Art Blakey’s Keystone 3, and Compact Jazz: Oscar Peterson Plays Jazz Standards.

  • If you’re not sure who Bootsy Collins, this Guardian interview is a good place to start. Just as Victor says everyone is musical, Bootsy says, “We’re all funky, just not all of us know it.”

    “People are so status-obsessed and they just don’t realise that we are all the same, that this whole Earth is our mothership and we’re all on board,” he says softly. “You can laugh if you want to, because I’ve been laughed at before, but none of that means anything to me any more. What means something is that we all get a chance to get heard and that we help each other out. We’re all funky, just not all of us know it.


Links for the week

  • Speaking of earth as a mothership, the wonderful essayist (and Albert’s grad-school friend) Jacob Mikanowski has a new piece in Harper’s on spomeniks, monuments erected to commemorate and unite the Yugoslav partisans who engaged in anti-fascist struggle. “While other Communist nations cast their monuments in the visual grammar of socialist realism, featuring colossal figures of workers, peasants, or soldiers, Yugoslavia’s spomeniks were defiantly inhuman,” he writes. “Some took the form of tori, stars, or cylinders, as though they issued from a realm of pure geometry; others were vaguely organic.”

    Jacob has incredible range as an essayist; he’s written about everything from the mass extinction of insects due to climate change to cults and utopian projects in the 1890s.

    To continue last week’s theme of grandparents, Jacob wrote fascinatingly about his grandpa Jakub, a Polish Jew born in 1912. Jakub dropped out of school after the seventh grade. He started working at age twelve, first in a rubber plant and then in a chemical factory. And he joined the Communist League even though his father had been imprisoned for being a Communist. During World War II, Jakub took courses in guerrilla tactics and parachuting; he and his unit stormed a work camp in a Belarussian village, leading two hundred enslaved Jewish workers to their freedom. After the war, Jakub became a handler for the Polish secret police, which infiltrated underground resistance movements. “Depending on whom you ask today, my grandfather’s story is that of a partisan, a traitor, a hero, or a spy,” Jacob writes. “What does it mean to fight on the right side of the war, but the wrong side of history?”

  • We’re overjoyed that Charles Yu’s novel Interior Chinatown won the National Book Award. We’ve been recommending it to everyone since it came out. It grapples with where Asian Americans belong in the white-Black binary of the United States, and does so with such deft humor and tenderness. Also, we want to know: is he the first Taiwanese American to win? (Full disclosure and partial brag: Charles is a friend of the newsletter.)

  • Those of you torn, as we are, about Kamala Harris’s record as a prosecutor may appreciate this column by Jeannie Suk Gersen, which—like everything she writes—reflects a measured and independent mind. On this topic we also appreciated the perspective of poet, lawyer, and formerly incarcerated person Dwayne Betts, who grapples with the role of prosecutors.

  • We loved seeing historian and longtime friend Kira Thurman in the New York Times, recommending Jessye Norman singing “Beim Schlafengehen” from Strauss’s “Four Last Songs.” And we loved this line: “When she pushes through that last glorious cadence — growing it, stretching it — the sheer power of her voice is enough to make your eyes water.”


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