An #importedAsians POV: Dr. Jordan VanHemert
The Universal Asian is excited to introduce Dr. Jordan VanHemert, a gifted saxophonist and composer. His new album “I Am Not A Virus” will be available to the public in early 2021.
Tell us about your background? Where did you grow up? Where did you study?
I grew up in West Michigan, which, ironically enough, is where I now reside. I promised myself when I was 18 years old that I would never ever return to this place—I was not a fan—and life brought me back here. I have a Bachelor of Music from Central Michigan University, a master’s degree from the University of Michigan, and I recently completed my doctorate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
How did you get into music—specifically, the saxophone?
After my grandfather passed away, my family inherited his CD collection. I used to sit on the floor of the living room and just listen to music over and over and over again. So, one time, I was just listening through, and one CD I stuck on was The Essential Charlie Parker. I listened to that CD, and I remember the exact recording that came on, that first track. It was Charlie Parker’s recording of “Stella by Starlight” from Charlie Parker with Strings, and I was completely hooked. I had no idea up until that point what a saxophone sounded like—I had no idea. So from that moment on, I was kind of fixated on the saxophone. When I got my first saxophone in sixth grade I just couldn’t put it down. We didn’t really have to practice the music in middle school; I just did because I loved playing it. At the career fair, everyone was like: “Oh, what do you want to be when you grow up?” and I thought about it and I thought: “Well, being a professional musician would be pretty cool.” I didn’t know it at the time, but I thought: “Yeah, playing the saxophone every day and getting paid to do it, that sounds great. That sounds like the life for me.”
What is it about jazz that draws you in? Who are your favorite artists?
Improvisation. The idea that you can just spontaneously create with no previous thought of what comes out the other end of the instrument. To me, that was always a really fascinating process. But, more than that, I grew up in a place where I rarely saw people of color playing music. Like, at all. And one of the first places where I saw any kind of BIPOC musician was jazz. My idols growing up, and I would say still now, were Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Hank Mobley, and Joshua Redman—all of whom are African American.
What is the most rewarding part of performing for you? What is the most difficult part?
I really think that during this time, in a global pandemic, you really understand how meaningful it is to share music with other people. It’s been a while since I was able to do that, at least in a live situation. I think live music is so cool because anything can happen. The performance will be completely different even if you play the exact same thing the same way night after night. It’s completely different. And, to me, that is one of the most rewarding things. You’re creating an experience, sharing an experience of what it means to be human, and you’re sharing that experience with people in a way that everybody understands.
The most difficult thing for me about playing music is to overcome the judgment zone with my own playing and composing. I am very new to the concept of not judging your work, but it’s something that I pass on to all of my students: “Don’t judge yourself, don’t judge your work. When you get off stage, don’t start thinking immediately of things that you could have done better.” I’ve always been kind of a perfectionist, and that element of myself has always been my worst enemy.
You’re set to release a new album next year called “I Am Not A Virus.” What can you tell us about it?
Well, this really has been a labor of love for me. I almost cancelled this entire session; this album almost didn’t exist. When I had originally planned the recording session, this was pre-COVID; and then COVID happened. It was devastating, first of all, to the music community, and second of all, to the Asian and Asian-American community. All of that led to me being very, very fatigued. There was about a month where it was really difficult for me to even write any music. In April, I was thinking: “Okay, we have this recording session scheduled for July, am I going to be ready for this.” What I ended up coming to was that the music was really important for me to share. There was something specifically that I could say about living in the year 2020 as an Asian-American that I wanted to say. I thought about how we would remember this year, especially how our community has been, in various ways, oppressed throughout this time. I realized I had to say something, and I had to say it in the way I felt most comfortable with. And it just so happens that it flows out of the activist tradition of jazz music. So I thought it was a perfect way to say: “I am Asian-American. I am also a jazz musician. And I am here to say that this is what I am really experiencing.”
Your latest release directly addresses the Black Lives Matter movement and the oppression Black Americans have faced since the foundation of this country. What can the Asian and Asian-American community do to be conscientious, earnest allies in the fight for justice?
That’s a great question. When I wrote that song, I was so broken and frustrated and angry about the most recent killings of unarmed Black individuals—Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd. I’ve been asked the question: “This is an Asian-American activism album, so why is there a tune called ‘Black Lives Matter’?” My response to that was that first of all, people of color need to stand together. We need to stand with our Black brothers and sisters because that’s what they have done and would do for us. The most heartbreaking thing, the most appalling thing for me is when I saw the video of George Floyd’s killing, when I saw an Asian police officer just standing by and not doing anything. That haunts me. That image haunts me. I think it’s a good metaphor for the way that we need to move forward because the fact of the matter is that while we all experience racism in different ways, by continuing to fight alongside our Black brothers and sisters I believe that we make life better in this country for all of us. We need to see ourselves as parts of a larger community of color. The way forward is, first, to stop being bystanders. An attack on one group of people of color is an attack on every one of us. The more we think that way, the less we are minorities. We’re so much more powerful and our activism is more enabled. It’s a complex question, one that I don’t think I’ll ever answer perfectly, but the idea is that we need to, even if we fail, we have to try. We have to start trying in ways that matter, in ways that are actionable.
There was a tangible backlash against Asians and Asian-Americans after the initial outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. What steps, artistic or otherwise, do you think we can take to stop the spread of hatred and racism in this country?
The first thing we need to do is talk about this stuff, about these issues. And be open. I think, a lot of the time, our community doesn’t speak up for itself. We experience things, and then we bottle them up and bury them inside. When we do that, it’s almost like we erase the evidence of our own struggles. We need to start speaking out, and start talking to people about dismantling the model minority myth. As much as people in our community can have the misconception that it’s helping us, it absolutely is holding us back. Be on the lookout; be vigilant about those kinds of terminologies being thrown around. Understand our own history. I think we have a very bad short-term memory as a community. Right now it’s COVID, but before that it was Yellow Peril, before that it was Japanese internment, the Chinese Exclusion Act, etc. etc. etc. We’ve somehow been fooled into thinking that we’re not at as much of a risk. That’s something we need to check ourselves for. The more we do that, the more we dismantle the model minority, the more we understand how much we actually do have to gain here. The second thing is sometimes we’re our own bystanders. Learn to speak up for yourselves and say: “No, that’s not okay.” Hold our elected officials accountable. Hold the words that they speak accountable. Hold them accountable for their actions. One of the fundamentally important things for us is to come together as a community. Because the more I talk to other Asians about things of this nature, no matter where someone is from, everybody says, universally, that we have experienced these things. The more that we can come together around these things and present a united front, the more our world is going to start looking better.
You’re also an educator. What do you want people to take away from your music?
In the art form of jazz, the nature of the music is that is inherently accepting. The great Jimmy Heath always used to say that jazz is the truest and purest form of democracy that we have. Everybody gets a voice. Everybody gets a say. And jazz doesn’t say that you have to be somebody. It demands that you respect the lineage and the ancestry, but it does not tell you who to be or what to play like. It invites you to contribute all of yourself. And in that way, with this record, I’m contributing myself. For any young musicians who are Asian, I would want them to take away that there is somebody who hears you; there is a music that sees you. We can do this. We can be present in this world. We can be represented in this community. Our voices are important, and our voices are powerful.