Chicagoans of the Year 2001

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From the Chicago Tribune
December 30, 2001

Sixteen inspirational individuals

Artists explain and interpret our world, and we’ve needed their insights more than ever this year. The artists and arts administrators that our critics profile below are the cream of Chicago’s crop, and for them, 2001 was a significant year. We look forward to benefiting from their creativity for years to come.

Tatsu Aoki Jazz musician

What inspires him: “The number of great artists who live in Chicago. I have everything in this city — swing and bebop masters like John Watson and Sonny Seals, masters of free jazz like Fred Anderson, younger people like Jeff Parker and Hamid Drake. There’s nothing like this in other cities.”

He may be the hardest-working man in Chicago jazz. In a typical month, bassist Tatsu Aoki leads performances by his groundbreaking Miyumi Project septet; plays in bands headed by saxophonist Fred Anderson, guitarist George Freeman and singer Yoko Noge; co-leads units such as Tri-Color and Healing Force; and runs the Asian Improv record label, based in San Francisco and Chicago.

Despite this perpetual swirl of activity — or perhaps because of it — Aoki in 2001 managed to write, perform and record the most important work of his career: “Rooted: Origins of Now.” Though the orchestral suite sounded sketchy in its premiere over the summer, at Ping Tom Memorial Park, by the time Aoki reprised it during the Asian American Jazz Festival (which Aoki heads), “Rooted: Origins of Now” had come into its own as an eloquent, often dramatic merger of ancient Japanese music and experimental American jazz.

To see and hear a contingent of traditional taiko drummers sharing a stage with such unrepentant Chicago avant-gardists as reedist Mwata Bowden and trumpeter Ameen Muhammad was to understand anew Aoki’s contributions to music in this city and beyond. For Aoki has been tireless in bringing together Japanese and American musicians, as well the audiences that follow them. In “Rooted: Origins of Now,” Aoki penned musical ideas that accommodated musicians from both cultures, the thunderous taiko drumming that opened the piece, vividly setting the stage for the Asian-tinged jazz-band playing yet to come.

“That piece meant a lot to me, and not just because we were fortunate enough to perform it several times,” says Aoki of a work commissioned by the Jazz Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Park District.

“For me, `Rooted’ was a concrete realization of what I and many others have been doing over the past many years in Chicago. In a way, it officially recognized the power of Asian-American musicians. With this piece, we really were being heard.

“And I also think a piece like that would not have been possible in any other city, because `Rooted’ drew on the talents and the styles of music that are available in Chicago every night of the week.”

That range of expression has been extended significantly by the Asian American Jazz Festival, which Aoki founded and, in its sixth season, has become the largest such event in the country. Meanwhile, Aoki’s record label, Asian Improv, has given Aoki and the array of jazz musicians he records an international audience. Thanks to these projects, and others, a new generation of Asian-American artists has followed Aoki’s lead, the list ranging from drummer Mia Park to violinist Jonathen Chen.

Aoki, of course, has not been alone in championing the exotic interweaving of Asian music and American jazz. But thanks to a relentless work ethic and a visionary’s approach to the art of improvisation, he surely has been the most influential.

— Howard Reich