In 2019 I released my quintet recording entitled Don’t Blink by the Ben Kono Group, a project that had been funded by a 2013 Chamber Music America New Jazz Works grant. The work is a collection of vignettes that were inspired by my (then) four year old daughter who asked some questions about our environment, the answers of which were difficult to come to terms with. “Will I get to see a glacier? Why did we kill all the passenger pigeons? Why are monk seals endangered?” To my surprise, a project that began over eight years ago continues to maintain traction, and it’s relevance only seems to grow as we see the natural world around us change in ways that make conditions for survival more inequitable for animals and humans alike. My previous recording Crossing included an extended work, “Paradise in Manzanar”, that was inspired by my cousin’s art installation that focused on this infamous Japanese internment camp. In 2022 I will release my third recording as a leader entitled Voyages, another Chamber Music America commission. This project was inspired by my grandfather’s memoirs detailing his immigration from Japan to the United States in 1911, his encounters with racism, the injustices of the war, and his eventual transformation into a community activist through his work with the church.
Finding your voice
It has been said that to choose music as a personal voice is to demand to be heard, and that jazz music in particular is one of the most powerful mediums of protest. While I certainly agree with this sentiment, I can safely say that at no time in my young adult life did I feel the urge to ‘rock the boat’ in the name of a greater cause. I was just too shy and very self-conscious about my ‘other-ness’ as an Asian-American kid in a time and place where drawing attention to that could have negative consequences. And yet, in my formative years it was the unfettered freedom that I heard in Charles Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus” and the anguished cry of protest in John Coltrane’s “Alabama” that stoked my imagination and drew me inexorably into the life of a jazz musician. Finding my new ‘protest voice’ through the freedom of jazz was a cathartic discovery and seemed to fulfill the need to be heard in ways I didn’t really understand. I imagine that for many like myself who lacked the confidence and poise of our nations’ great orators, engaging as a jazz musician was a way to shout out one’s message of protest without the benefit of skillful speaking.
Both Don’t Blink and Voyages are full-length concept albums. They forced me to dig deep into the source material and uncover, like an excavation site, layers of information through investigative research. Don’t Blink started out as an attempt to answer my daughter’s ecological questions and led to more questions of my own: how did we let this all happen and why is it still happening? How can I be part of the solution? What started as a simple musical idea led to a deeper, more informed understanding of our footprint on this earth. I began volunteering for the Riverkeeper organization (riverkeeper.org), loved the work they were doing, and eventually donated much of the album proceeds to their efforts to keep the Hudson River clean. It was a small action on my part, but becoming part of the activist community through music seemed to imbue more meaning to my work as a composer, and I am starting to think about following up with a sequel to the project. In effect, it was the demands of the music that led me toward action.
Compositional considerations for Voyages
In a similar way, Voyages has forced me to dig deeper into my own family immigration story. As an Asian-American who grew up isolated from his Japanese roots, the history of my ancestors’ difficult journey has long been hidden from view, partly by geography and partly, I suspect, from the desire to distance oneself from the stereotyping that accompanies being part of an ethnic minority group. Thankfully, I have close relatives who have kept vigil over our family history through photographs and networking within the Japanese-American community. It was my aunt Midori Kono Thiel who translated the first chapter of ‘Setsu no Jinsei’ which detailed the journey of my grandfather Juhei Kono (my ‘ojichan’) across the ocean to this country where he worked on a farm to help support his family, still in Japan in 1911. He was just thirteen years old! As I read his fascinating account, I noticed a lot of imagery in his writing that I imagined would translate well into music: the sound of bells from the neighboring Buddhist temple; the journey across the Pacific on a freighter; the rhythm of working in the fields; the sounds of shamisen and koto—two traditional Japanese instruments that my aunt Midori continues to perform on. As a composer, how all this would be delivered as an effective portrayal required a lot of consideration.
Whereas Don’t Blink was a collection of contrasting vignettes all connected together by the use of a set of ‘leitmotifs’ representing (loosely) beauty, danger, sorrow and hope,Voyages I envisioned more as a symphonic work. The vibe would need to have a timeless feel to it, reaching back early into the last century and carrying forward to the future, so I was in search of a somewhat nostalgic sound that could also bring an element of modernity to my quintet. I decided to expand my ensemble by featuring a string quartet. I enrolled in a string-writing workshop in NYC presented by composer Michael Patterson, and some of the music on this project had their beginnings in that workshop. There are so many pitfalls in writing for strings, especially in a jazz context, and chief among them are WHO would be able to interpret this music. I don’t think I would have taken on this project without the incredible expertise of Sara Caswell, Meg Okura, Lois Martin and Jody Redhage Ferber—all are not only accomplished classical musicians, but all improvise and know how to swing (and on top of that are wonderful people who have been incredibly helpful in the learning process for a relatively green string writer!). This freed me from having to make decisions as to whether or not to write swing figures, and in fact allowed me to feature both Sara and Meg as improvising soloists.
I toyed with the idea of ‘leitmotifs’ again but it didn’t really seem to make sense in the context of this project. I was trying to paint a portrait not deliver a manifesto! I did tap into some of the aforementioned imagery for some of the pieces. “Yobiyose”, or “The Calling Over”, makes use of a repeating string pattern to conjure my ojichan’s journey across the Pacific and the uncertainty that lay ahead (ironically his ship, the Tacoma Maru, which brought over many Japanese Americans was later sunk by an American torpedo during WWII). I also incorporated the use of the traditional miyako-bushi scale (sometimes informally know as the ‘Sakura’ scale due to it’s use in this widely recognized folk song) as well as the use of toms emulating taiko drums. It’s probably the most overtly ‘Asian’ sounding music in the project as my grandfather leaves the Japanese way of life behind:
“Bata-Kusai!!” (literally “butter-stinker”: an irreverent phrase use by my newly-immigrated grandfather to describe the alien-ness of American food and culture) also hints at traditional Japanese music by opening with a very specific taiko drum ‘swing’ rhythm that was often used in work songs, and the use of pizzicato in the strings to emulate the sounds of the shamisen before breaking into a blues. I enjoyed giving some space to the strings for a collective ‘bata-kusai’ moment between solos! I hope my ojichan would approve of this tribute to the back-breaking work that he, like so many immigrants before and since, have contributed to building this country:
The centerpiece of this project is an extended suite, which I call the Generations Suite (still looking for a catchier title). It’s four movements are entitled Issei, Nisei, Sansei and Yonsei. These are simply the designations for each subsequent Japanese-American generation, the Issei being the first generation to settle in the United States. For this work I decided to use a central melodic theme which reappears in each movement in variation. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out this theme. I was again exploring the use of the miyako-bushi scale. I liked the symmetry of its two tetrachords. The music theorist Fumio Koizumi organized Japanese scales into several basic types using two sets of perfect fourth intervals with a third note that dictated the type of scale. So for example, taking C as it’s root, the miyako-bushi scale would read as two tetrachords: C,Db,F and G,Ab,C. However, I didn’t want my theme to sound Japanese, I wanted it sound distinctly American—whatever that might be. Eventually, I found by inverting the scale you get C,E,F and G,B,C. This variation is know as the ryūkyū scale, mostly found in the music of Okinawa. Not quite what I would call American, but there was an openness to the intervals which I liked—lots of fourths and major thirds.
“Issei” opens with a fanfare in the strings, stating the theme already fully fleshed out with rhythms, dense harmonies and modulations and an appearance of it’s inversion (the miyako-bushi mode) before walking backwards to it’s essential set of pitches—sort of a theme and variations in reverse. When the rhythm section joins as a whole we hear the theme presented at different speeds simultaneously before the piano solo. I wanted to portray the Japanese diaspora during that time—many families, each with a different story but all following a common thread and search for a better life. In the case of my grandfather’s time it was primarily escaping the poverty and injustices brought about by the Russo-Japanese war.
The second movement, “Nisei”, is a tribute to my two aunts Sumi and Midori. They were of the first generation born in this country and are my connections to family and culture and all things Japanese (including care packages of sembei they would send across country to us every year!). I wanted to use the freely improvising violins to represent their loving, if sometimes contentious, relationship. The theme reappears in inverted ‘Japanese’ form in various fragmented instances.
Movement three, “Sansei”, represents my generation and that of my cousins. We are the second generation born here in the U.S. and, I suppose in some ways, more rejecting of our Japanese heritage while also being more curious. The theme is further fragmented and dressed up in a funky hip hop beat. There are occasional glimmers of the Japanese theme, but everything is layered and getting more complex.
The final movement, “Yonsei”, utilizes both versions of the theme fairly equally but is even more fragmented. My teenager’s generation seems to hold a lot of angst but also a lot of hope for the future but also a lot of hope for the future, and I wanted to convey the constant shifting between anxiety and optimism in this piece.
Like previous projects, many discoveries were made along the way that were unearthed during the investigative process. I discovered a great uncle Hideo Kono who perished in the atomic blast over Hiroshima; I learned one of my uncles spent his middle school years in an internment camp in Idaho during the second world war, one of many injustices inflicted against Asian-American citizens during this time; I learned that the 1920s were perhaps the worst for Japanese-Americans and that many, including my grandfather, turned to the Christian church to assist in ‘Americanizing’ themselves; and unfortunately I learned during the current pandemic that the anti-Asian sentiment I experienced as a child never really went away. Bringing an activist message to your music never goes out of style, it stays relevant. I think the important takeaway here for me is, like everything else, don’t be afraid of what kind of negative opinion you might encounter, or even if you think you might make a difference. You just never know. I brought our Don’t Blink project to Joplin, Missouri—about as far away politically, culturally and ecologically from New York City as you can get—and I was amazed by the enthusiastic reception of the band and our message. By clarifying your position and staying on point it can have a unifying effect on your music, and the music itself can encourage deeper exploration into whatever thing it was you wanted to bring to light. It brings a richness and deeper connection to the process. I’m still trying to find my own voice as a composer and improviser, but I can now say I’m no longer afraid to ‘rock the boat’!
About the Author:
“When the short form ventures give way to the more expansive and patiently crafted soundscapes, Kono moves effortlessly among an entire palette of woodwind instruments, crafting elegant melodies and clear, economical improvisations.”—College Music Symposium.
Since moving to New York City in 1999, woodwind specialist, composer and educator Ben Kono has been attracting attention as a singular emerging voice in the city’s cutting-edge large ensembles like Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, the Ted Nash Big Band and Miho Hazama’s M-Unit. With the release of his critically acclaimed CROSSING on Nineteen-Eight Records, the self-released environmental discourse DON’T BLINK, and as a recipient of two Chamber Music America New Jazz Works grants he has come into his own light as a leader and composer of merit.
Kono’s music is informed both by the rich diversity of classical, folk and jazz music ever present in his childhood hometown of Brattleboro, Vermont, and by the breathtaking natural beauty of the surrounding region. Fostered by his parent’s strong advocacy of the arts and spurred on by a community rich in culture, live music and arts awareness, his passion for music led to studies at the the Eastman School of Music and the University of North Texas. It was here he met future musical collaborators John Hollenbeck, Henry Hey, and Pete McCann, and studied with master educators and mentors like David Liebman, Jerry Bergonzi, Bill Dobbins, Gary Cambell and Rayburn Wright among others.
Following a year long stint with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and a five-year hitch with the U.S.Army’s elite touring group the Jazz Ambassadors, Kono’s broad musical training and experience led him to the infinitely varied musical landscape of New York City. Equally skilled on oboe, english horn, flutes, clarinets and saxophones, his wide range of skills and prowess as both a classically trained musician and an improviser quickly garnered high demand as a sideman. He has performed and recorded with Michael Brecker, Freddie Hubbard, Billy Hart, Wynton Marsalis, David Liebman, Bob Berg, Kenny Wheeler, Toots Thielmans, Michel LeGrand, Ted Nash, Joel Harrison, Andrew Rathbun, Donny McCaslin, Manuel Valera, Remy Le Boeuf and Christian McBride; with superstars Patti Austin, Natalie Cole, D’Angelo, Deborah Gibson, Hugh Jackman and Liza Minelli; and he is a long-time member of the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, the Ed Palermo Big Band, the BMI Jazz Composers Orchestra, Remy Le Boeuf’s Assembly of Shadows, the Ted Nash Big Band, and many Broadway productions including the entire eleven year run of the smash hit Jersey Boys. He appears on over a hundred albums and soundtracks for film and television, and he has received multiple Grammy® and Tony® awards for his contributions to these projects. The eloquent sounds of his woodwinds have graced the stages of Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, and you’re as likely to hear him appearing with St.Lukes Orchestra or the New York Pops as tearing up a solo at elite jazz venues like the Blue Note or the Jazz Standard.
With such a wide and varied experience as a sideman, it is no wonder that his compositional style is imbued with influences ranging from Bela Bartok to the Baka Forest people. As a leader he has led his eponymously named Ben Kono Group in performances and clinics throughout the nation including the Bryant Park New Music Festival, Joplin Pro Musica, Missouri Southern State University, Amherst College, Music Mountain Chamber Music Festival, the Hopper House Museum, The Jazz Forum, Cornelia Street Cafe, the Chamber Music America National Conference, and various venues throughout New York City. Of his debut album CROSSING, Nate Chinen in the New York Times writes “Mr.Kono…establishes his style as a bandleader-composer: cosmopolitan and unflappable, with a feel for rallying his sidemen.”
An avid educator for over thirty years he has served on faculties at University of North Texas, Morgan State University, and the Queens College Preparatory Studies in Music, and has published articles in Downbeat and Chamber Music America magazines. Currently he is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Music at City College of New York and is a teaching artist for the New York Pops. He lives with his wife, teenager, dog, cats and chickens in the beautiful Hudson River town of Nyack where he can enjoy a day of sailing and thinking about music before returning to the hectic excitement of New York City.