A Musical Activist 

Influential jazz player Glenn Horiuchi is honored in Oakland

With the recent deaths of pianists Horace Tapscott and Glenn Horiuchi, California lost two of its most prominent social historians from the bandstand. Tapscott presided over the Pan-Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, an institution through which passed Los Angeles' most prominent contributions to the jazz world. His death in 1999 generated a slew of posthumous releases, tribute concerts, and critical attention. This Sunday, friends of Horiuchi will meet in Oakland to launch the same process for him, in a day of events marking the first anniversary of his death.

Explaining Horiuchi's contribution to the world is more difficult because, while he sustained several institutions over the course of his life, he was defined by none of them. Unlike most of the musicians he played with, Horiuchi chose music as a career late in life, only after pursuing other careers, including graduate study in mathematics. According to longtime collaborator Francis Wong, Horiuchi's time away from music was involuntary. "When he went to college, he was a piano major until the professor told him, 'It's too late for you to become a concert pianist,'" Wong says, laughing, since Horiuchi's discography of fifteen albums as a leader would ultimately prove otherwise.

Horiuchi's return to music, after a childhood spent playing piano, was inspired by the movement for reparations to Japanese Americans forcibly relocated during World War II. Until the movement crested in the 1980s, "music was something Glenn did and did very well," Wong explains, "but after the Congressional hearings he definitely felt he had something to say."

Horiuchi's early releases on Asian Improv Records--such as Manzanar Voices and Poston Sonata--helped establish the practice of art as cultural activism for which AIR is known today. Label cofounder and pianist Jon Jang notes, "Glenn's recordings, starting in the late '80s, were critically important for AIR, because they helped build and sustain the label. The number of artists who self-produced their debuts in the '90s was thanks to the momentum created by Glenn."

For a mild-mannered Cecil Taylor fan who played hotel gigs (as Jang recalls him in his early days), nothing was so avant-garde for Horiuchi as crossing social divisions to build a career. Being Japanese American in San Diego at the height of "Buy American" Japanophobia while coming up as a piano player in R&B bands and seeing the power of music there could be a far-out experience on many levels.

For all the explicit intellectual and ideological content of Horiuchi's work, his music had the deeply felt, experiential quality of late Coltrane. Explains Horiuchi's man on tuba, William Roper: "Glenn cared what people thought about his music. The audience didn't understand when they showed up, but they understood at the end of a tune."

On Sunday, Wong, Roper, trumpet legend Wadada Leo Smith, and others will exchange stories of Glenn on a panel titled "The Documentation of Impermanence." The day ends with a concert, "Celebrating Glenn!," featuring an ensemble of the aforementioned musicians, as well as a group drawn from next-generation talents such as Jeff Chan, Adam Lane, Jimmy Biala, and Leon Lee. The daylong celebration will kickstart efforts to archive Horiuchi's musical compositions and writings, and to produce numerous recordings which have thus far gone unreleased. "The power of Glenn's music ranged from 88 tuned taiko drums in his piano to the sweet whisper of a shamisen," Jon Jang adds--which may explain why the piano bench will be left empty for the concert.


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