Anthony Brown is a jazz percussionist, drummer, composer, ethnomusicologist, and founder and director of San Francisco’s Asian American Orchestra. His resume includes appearances on over thirty recordings working with musicians like Max Roach, Wadada Leo Smith and Pharoah Sanders, the poet Sonia Sanchez and the San Francisco Symphony. It also involves working in schools with young people and jazz. He grew up as a military dependent (he and I used to discuss music and politics in the US high school in Frankfurt am Main back in 1970-1971) and was in the military himself. Music was and is his one of his driving forces. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote: “If music is a language, then Berkeley percussionist and composer Anthony Brown is probably one of the most articulate men in jazz.”
Ron J: For those readers who might be unfamiliar, can you give a brief description and history of the Day of Remembrance?
Anthony B: Day of Remembrance (DOR) is the annual commemoration of the signing of Executive Order 9066 by President Roosevelt on February 19, 1942 that unconstitutionally authorized the forced removal and incarceration of over 120,000 men, women and children during World War II. Executive Order 9066 (EO9066) imprisoned people of Japanese ancestry–over two-thirds were US citizens—in ten desolate concentration camps with only what they could carry. Most lost their homes, businesses, and farms and were not able to recover them after their release. Additionally, over 2,200 Japanese Latin Americans were brought to US camps to be used for US hostage and POW exchange. It should be noted that the US policy of concentration camps began with the corralling of American Indians leading to their forced removal from the Southeastern US in the 1830s known as the Trail of Tears. Hitler referenced this policy as influential in his treatment of Jews and concentration camps in Mein Kampf.
RJ: If you don’t mind me asking, were relatives of yours interned?
AB: My mother was a native of Tokyo and arrived in the US in 1952 as the bride of my Army sergeant father, therefore neither she nor any family members were interned during WWII (although my mother was a survivor of the fire bombing of Tokyo in March 1945 that killed over 100,000 people). After the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 authorized redress and reparations to interned Japanese Americans, federal funds were allocated for projects to educate the public about the internment experience. The Asian American Jazz Orchestra was established in 1998 as a touring cultural component of a multimedia project, Jazz & Justice: Big Bands Behind Barbed Wire for which I served as the project director. When I was asked by a colleague why I was so interested in the internment, I replied, “ If EO9066 was passed today, my mother, children, brothers and I would be interned. This is an issue of social justice that will always be of utmost importance to all Americans.” I did not realize how prescient that reply would be, particularly given the current temper of the US.
RJ: My understanding of the music is that there are two compositions on the CD. One is about the Nisei (second generation Japanese in America) men who fought for the US military in WW II and the other is about the internment of their relatives in camps with thousands of other Japanese Americans. What led you to write about the Nisei-American men who fought in the US military while their families were interned?
AB: GO FOR BROKE! A Salute to Nisei Veterans was commissioned in 2017 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the signing of EO9066, and premiered on the Presidio, San Francisco where Commanding General DeWitt effectuated the internment order in 1942. Activist, second poet laureate of San Francisco, and former internee Janice Mirikitani contributed original poetry and spoken word recitation. I conducted extensive research at the National Japanese American Historical Society archives in Japantown, San Francisco and was moved by the experiences of young men and women volunteering to fight and die in World War II while their families were imprisoned. As a vet myself and the son and brother of vets, I understood their sacrifice to prove that Japanese Americans were loyal citizens of the country of their birth.
RJ: I have not seen the film, but listening to the composition/soundtrack I hear a combination of emotions; sadness, pride, anger and determination. When you were composing the score, were you transposing what you saw onscreen directly into the music or was there a more organic process going on? I guess what I’m trying to get at is what was your composition process when writing this score?
AB: I composed GO FOR BROKE!after I had been approached by Jon Osaki, the producer of the new documentary, Alternative Facts: The Lies of Executive Order 9066to provide the soundtrack, so that anticipated role for the forthcoming music was influential. Alternative Facts is an important documentary that reveals how the US government doctored the findings of investigations into whether Japanese Americans had engaged in espionage and were a threat to national security, thereby justifying their forced mass evacuation and imprisonment. It also documents how political factions lobbied to remove Japanese Americans from their bountiful Central Valley, CA farms, which they lost during internment.
I also gave Jon tracks from previous compositions–particularly from my soundtrack for After The War, the 2007 American Conservatory Theater’s production of Philip Gotanda’s play about former internees returning to San Francisco following their release—to use in his documentary as he saw fit, so all credit goes to him for the selection of my music to comprise the soundtrack of the film.
RJ: On the same note, while composing and putting together this soundtrack, what emotions and thoughts were you trying to manifest in the listener? The use of traditional and well known tunes from the so-called Great American Songbook (Take Me Out to the Ball Game) lends a certain irony to the ignorance, fear and hate this executive order was based on.
AB: I’d have to say that the past two decades of founding and leading the Asian American Orchestra have always been undergirded by its original mission of providing the public with music that addresses issues of social justice. Our first CD, Big Bands Behind Barbed Wire, included testimony from former internees with tunes from the big band era to underscore their American experience. As George Yoshida, former internee who played jazz in the Poston Music Makers camp band said, “We identified ourselves as Americans through our music.”
RJ: In order to provide some context, what is the history of the Asian American Orchestra–its creation, it’s history and so on?
AB: As mentioned earlier, the Asian American Orchestra (AAO) was founded twenty years ago. Since 1998, the AAO has received international critical acclaim for their performances and seven recordings blending Asian musical instruments and sensibilities with the sonorities of the jazz orchestra. The Asian American Orchestra has toured nationally including performances and residencies at universities and colleges as well as at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild in Pittsburgh, the John Coltrane Memorial Concert in Boston, Earshot Festival in Seattle, the Chicago, San Francisco and Monterey Jazz Festivals, and the San Francisco and Chicago Asian American Jazz Festivals, among others.
In celebration of Duke Ellington’s centennial in 1999, the AAO’s interpretation of Ellington-Strayhorn’s Far East Suite garnered a 2000 Grammy nomination for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Performance. Late jazz saxophonist and MacArthur genius grant recipient Steve Lacy joined the Orchestra to record Monk’s Moods, featuring new interpretations of Thelonious Monk compositions in collaboration with Monk’s original producer, Orrin Keepnews. Downbeat magazine rated Monk’s Moods a“Five-star masterpiece,” “Best CD of 2003.” The 2005 recording, Rhapsodies, features my Pacific Rim-reimagining of Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue,completed as a 2003 Guggenheim Fellow. The Orchestra’s 2008 CD, TEN represents the culmination of a decade of music making, and the 2010 CD India & Africa: A Tribute to John Coltrane showcases North Indian instruments as well as African percussion in new arrangements of classic Coltrane compositions.
In 2013, Voices Of A Dream (VOAD) vocal ensemble was founded to premiere Our Eyes On the Prize: King’s Dream 50 Years On, in commemoration of the 50thanniversary of The March on Washington and MLK’s immortal “Dream” speech, and to celebrate female freedom fighters from Sojourner Truth to Ella Baker.In 2015, the Asian American Orchestra and Voices Of A Dream in collaboration with activist/poet Genny Lim and Ojala Bata ensemble premiered 1945: A Year of Infamy at SF Japantown’s Peace Plaza to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the atomic devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 2016, this collaborative assemblage premiered We Insist! Freedom Now Suite 2016 incommemoration of the first overtly political jazz album long-playing (LP) record featuring poetry and songs advocating for international equality and justice. Recorded and released in 1960 to critical acclaim, We Insist! Freedom Now Suite remains a landmark musical milestone composed by my former mentor and teacher, band leader/percussionist Max Roach in collaboration with Oscar Brown, Jr. Abbey Lincoln, and master drummer Olatunji. With We Insist! Freedom Now Suite 2016, the AAO honored the courage of our forbearers’ convictions and commitment to human rights, and the work’s continuing relevance to the #BlackLivesMatter Movement and the upsurge of anti-Muslim violence.
The Asian American Orchestra celebrated its 20th anniversary last year with the release of the GO FOR BROKE!CD and supporting performances in the SF Bay Area. In May 2018, DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE Requiem for a King, commissioned to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, premiered as the headlining event of the 2018 San Francisco International Arts Festival. The work features original spoken word by Dr. Angela Davis accompanied by the Asian American Orchestra and Voices Of A Dream Gospel ensemble.
I founded Fifth Stream Music in 2006 as the nonprofit incarnation of the Asian American Orchestra: www.fifthstreammusic.org/
RJ: Anything else in your near future? Any tours? New CDs or shows?
AB: We are currently working on having the Asian American Orchestra perform 1945: A Yearof Infamyin Tokyo during the 2020 Olympics to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—it is a challenge dealing with Prime Minister Abe’s conservative government. My dad was stationed in Japan in the early 1960s and we saw 1964 Tokyo Olympic events live and an appearance of Duke Ellington on Japanese TV. I hope that we’ll be in Tokyo next year and maybe some youngster might be inspired by our music as well.