As I write this, there is a government shutdown in effect due to a budget impasse. What that means to you, kids, is that I am free to do whatever the hell I want without the constrictive Federal Jazz Commission telling me what is and isn't appropriate material for this column. If I wanted to write an entire article about Art Tatum's left hand, for example, there'd be no one to stop me. I can finally stretch my legs as the Dean of American Jazz Humorists® and get as 'out there' as I wish to go.
Or, I could dip into my extensive bag of Jazz knowledge and pull out a name you might not have heard yet but will definitely be hearing in the near future. This column has not traditionally been kind to up-and-coming musicians, and that's my fault (as much as I'd like to blame the government for it). My main area of expertise has always been the history of Our Music; only rarely do I venture into the present with such current artists as Dave Douglas
and Donny McCaslin
To that end, I sought out relative newcomers to profile. It wasn't an easy task, Jazz tends to lack the cohesive hierarchy of other forms of popular music. There is no central clearing house for aspiring Jazz artists, no American Idol for the swinging set. New Jazz talent must be sought where it can be found, and you never know when the next Bill Frisell
might be found slogging through the standards in a hotel lounge in Punxsutawney, PA. Except Bill Frisell isn't done being him yet, so this young upstart is going to have to wait his turn.
I'd like to say that I searched high and low for the subject of this piece, but that wouldn't be accurate. She almost literally fell into my lap, suggested to me by my friend, guitarist Dave Askern, when I was soliciting names of rising talent for my piece on women in Jazz from a few months ago. So, with the freedom afforded me by the lack of governmental interference, I decided to break from Genius Guide tradition and profile the first female Jazz artist I've ever devoted an entire article to, the talented and beauteous Connie Han.
Born 21 years ago (you do the math) into a very traditional household to Chinese immigrants who were both professional musicians, Connie began learning classical piano at the age of 5 because you're never too young to learn a trade. She began studying Our Music at 14, when she entered Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. Drawn by the rebellious and spontaneous nature of Our Music, which was very much in contrast to her structured upbringing, she came under the tutelage of faculty member and drummer Bill Wysaske
who would be instrumental (pun unintended, but I'll take what I can get) in her development as a musician and leader.
Accepting a full scholarship to UCLA (home of the Bruins) at the age of 18, it only took her three weeks to decide that the key to her future lay outside organized academia. Influenced by artists such as Kenny Kirkland
, Hank Jones
, McCoy Tyner
and Mulgrew Miller
, she set about becoming a professional musician. She hit the Los Angeles
Jazz scene, performing as part of a trio and as a leader in bars, Jazz clubs, restaurants, and exceptionally hip filling stations like those depicted in Ed Ruscha's Standard Oil series. By the age of 19, she was a familiar sight in places like the Catalina Jazz Club (home of Catalina salad dressing. Or not. My research was incomplete on this point), Vibrato Grill Jazz (where the steaks are cooked by oscillating sound waves), and the Baked Potato (located right next to the famous Ribeye Club).
Normally, at this point in a Genius Guide article, I'd detail the history of a stalwart artist who has been playing for decades. But Connie is a newcomer, only a few years into her Jazz journey. And while she is already an accomplished artist, with an appearance at the 2017 Montreal Jazz Festival and a profile in Keyboard
magazine to her credit, I only have a brief period into which I can inject my expected silliness.
"Jazz inspires the rebel in me." she says. As a Southerner, where rebellion is in our genes (as well as a love of pork, banjos, and canned lager beers), I can appreciate that idea. Jazz is about ultimate freedom, which, as a Libertarian, I can also appreciate. Connie's music embodies both the youthful insurgence and established tradition of Our Music, expanding recognized borders without the need to reinvent the damned wheel.
"Jazz can't be Jazz unless it has rich roots but is also pushing boundaries." Inspired by the 'young lions' of the 1990s (Kenny Kirkland, Wynton Marsalis
, et al. Not actual lions), she's bringing a new voice to the conventional language of Our Music. This reflects my own philosophy regarding my place as Your Own Personal Genius. Like Connie, I wish to remain steeped in the tradition of those who came before me while forging a new path all my own. Unlike Connie, I'm not a 21-year-old Jazz wunderkind
from Los Angeles.
It should be mentioned, at this point, that my admiration for Connie's work does not stem from her obvious loveliness. While one would have to be blind not to notice her beauty, it is her talent alone that brought her here. I do not consider the appearance of my subjects when I choose to profile them. And, as a heterosexual male, I am unable to gauge the physical appearance of my male subjects. But then, Our Music is not known as a haven for pretty people with minimal talent, like pop music. Connie is an intelligent, articulate, gifted artist who just happens to be very attractive (in my opinion. And I'll fight the man who says different).
Back to the point.
With an appearance at the Arturo Sandoval Jazz Festival completed, Connie has a lineup of gigs in her future. It goes without saying that I recommend you get out and see her perform if you can. And if you are in Los Angeles and do get out, do me a favor and enjoy a French dip sandwich at Phillipe's for me. I'm stuck in a place where the only French dip available is at Arby's, and the local Jazz scene consists mostly of a guy who claims to have once given Maria Schneider
Connie Han represents a new force in Our Music that will safely carry it into the next generation alive and well. She is a living certainty that we will not go the way of skiffle or klezmer. As long as there are young people out there taking up the banner of Our Music, Jazz will continue to be the voice of an America that still exists beyond the current socio-political hysteria that separates us.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch.