Investigating Asian Influences in Jazz

By: Nicholas Urbin

Miguel Sutedjo was interested in music long before deciding to major in it at Fordham College Rose Hill. A sophomore with an additional major in international political economy and a minor in Mandarin, Sutedjo has played piano since he was four years old and performed jazz since ninth grade in high school. This musical background serves as the basis for his investigation into jazz music created by Asians and Asian Americans.

Sutedjo seeks to take an interdisciplinary approach to examine these works. He notes that jazz music started in the 1900s through various diasporic Black musical cultures and was later commercialized by whites, creating a sort of racial Black and white dichotomy in the genre. As an Asian American and immigrant from Indonesia, Sutedjo wants to see where his identity fits within this structure. To this end, his research question is as follows: Because Asian and Asian American musicians do not create in the traditional racial dichotomies of American music, how have Asian and Asian American jazz artists combined styles of jazz and other “Asian” sounds in their music? Overseeing his research is Dr. Nathan Lincoln-DeCusatis of the music department. His preliminary hypothesis is that Asians and Asian Americans have found different ways of incorporating their Asian cultural background into American soundscapes.

Sutedjo selected three pieces of music by Asian and Asian American composers for analysis: “Bali” by Joey Alexander, “Minamata” by Toshiko Akiyoshi, and “Fishing Song of the East China Sea” performed by Fred Ho. He selected these works for their varied nature to allow him to discover unique features of each. Initially, he developed a preliminary hypothesis for each piece. However, before analysis, each must be transcribed, or notated as written music. This process is performed by Sutedjo on his piano and reviewed by Dr. Lincoln-DeCusatis. Each piece is listened to and entered as written music in a music notation software called “Sibelius.” Sutedjo emphasized that the act of transcribing allows him to perform more in-depth musical analysis while listening to the pieces. He compared it to how one tries to analyze a piece of art by their own accord before reading supplemental literature on it.

Sutedjo identifies musical characteristics like melody, harmony, chord changes, instrumentation, rhythm, lyrics (if applicable), and meter from the transcription. These features are then used to determine where the music drew from American traditions and where the music drew from Asian traditions. Currently, Miguel has completed transcription and analysis of two of the three pieces. He is approximately halfway through the project as a whole, having worked through winter break since November 2020.

One challenging aspect of the project is the lack of literature on the musical pieces being examined. There are few scholarly articles on the compositions, which makes analysis difficult. Sutedjo’s research centered on what the artists are doing constitutes the most rigorous analysis of these pieces to date. The artists themselves have little written about them as well. As such, the research requires making educated hypotheses about the people and circumstances surrounding the musical techniques. Also challenging is that the process of transcription itself is imperfect and can be influenced by the quality of the recording available and other factors.  Once the final piece (“Fishing Song of the East China Sea”) is transcribed and analyzed, Sutedjo hopes to synthesize his findings in the form of a paper. He would like to hire professional musicians to perform the pieces at the Undergraduate Research Symposium in a piano trio, which includes a piano, double bass, and drums. Once the pandemic restrictions have lifted, he also sees the opportunity to have these pieces performed in other jazz venues off-campus. Sutedjo is potentially interested in doing future ethnomusicological research, or research studying the music of different cultures, for which this project could serve as the basis. It is also possible to engage with the pieces on a cultural level using his study of Mandarin. Regardless of how this project manifests in Sutedjo’s future musical pursuits, it is undoubtedly a unique study of jazz music and the history of cultural influence therein.

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