Barely A Dude (Thoughts)

Just to give context: I have a show at the Jazz Gallery coming up in one week called “Barely A Dude.” I’ve invested more emotional energy into this project than anything in my musical career thus far. I’m making this post mostly to organize my own thoughts in addition to sharing them with many of you who have already commented on the title of the event.

Photo by Kat Lee

Photo by Kat Lee

I’ve always been huge on community. Ever since I was young I never found myself looking for the cool kids to hangout with or joining clubs that had some purpose or function. This was due in part to my stubbornness and obsessive tendencies but mostly due to a consistent feeling of never “fitting in” or at the very least, never wanting to fit in. Maybe this sounds like a negative or lonely statement but really, I was a happy kid. Always loved by my family, respected by my few but close friends (well, most of them) and most importantly, didn’t hate middle school (and I wasn’t even one of the “Popular” kids!). I didn’t let the feeling of isolation get me down because I was always good at starting groups or creating my own friend circles that later turned into tightly knit hangs. I’d introduce my coolest friends to each other and more often than not, they’d end up being even better friends with each other than they ever were with me. In quite a few cases, they’ve ended up dating! This is something still true of my life today.

I think I started becoming most aware of my passion for community about halfway through college when “The MacDougal Hang” started. Without going into too much detail, every Thursday night there was a group of students that would have class until 11:00pm and afterwards we’d all assemble on the 5th floor of the new school and migrate southwards to Macdougal street where we’d eat at Mamoun’s or Artichoke Pizza and end the night together in a massive hang at cafe reggio. The best thing about this was that new people along with the regulars would always come each time and we’d get to know each other on our own terms outside of school. It felt very humanizing and hopeful.

It wasn’t long before I realized this was the reason I played music. Well, not so much the only eating falafel and pizza part, but for the diverse community of human beings it unites. Though this was an incredibly important and meaningful realization, it would later present a whole new set of challenges that my 19 year old mind couldn’t even begin to anticipate.

Fast forwarding a few years to right after I graduated; here I was, a fresh college grad with my fancy yet useless jazz diploma in despair whenever I was at home because I had pretty much no gigs and I wasn’t making money. As a result, I was always at new school (more than most students) even though I had already graduated. I was trying to pretend I belonged somewhere because I was too depressed (therefore lazy and lost) to start re-distributing my passion for creating communities into parts of my barely budding career as a “broke jazz musician.” Over the course of the next year, I started to get into other “escapes” like various trading card games or believing I could be a successful video game streamer. This was actually  facilitated further by always being at new school (which tricked me into feeling productive). I wish I could say that I wasn’t aware of the cycle I had fallen into but I knew all too well what was going on.

I was getting enough gigs and performance opportunities from other new school students and alumni (particularly pit orchestras and random non-paying bands) to feel comfortable with the progress I was making but in reality, I wasn’t happy or mentally healthy. In summary; I wasn’t making music that was meaningful to me because I didn’t have a community I felt comfortable sharing with anymore.

One of the reasons why I didn’t feel I had that community was that I always felt incredibly repulsed and judged by the often hyper-masculine and seemingly cutthroat jazz-session community. Even at New School; one of the most “progressive” institutions in the world for studying jazz, there was still so much toxic competitiveness around every corner and in every foul-smelling practice room. Don’t get me wrong; I loved my college experience but that place can be grosser than a men’s locker room at a high school gym and I’m not just referring to the smells.. I am aware the young jazz community has brought tons of people (myself included) incredible opportunity and experience and I wouldn’t give any of it away for the world, but I’ve seen it turn away far more people than it has helped in my limited time on “the scene”

The saddest part is that the music itself is what suffers from this toxic energy. It has done nothing but selflessly give to our world and society, yet certain types of people use it wrongly and as a way to judge their self-made dick measuring contests at “the late night sessions” across the world. Again, my intention here is not to simply rag on this community but rather, make the point that the music itself is not and never will be the problem. Ultimately, I began to get out of my post-college funk when Adam O’Farrill asked me to play on his commission at the Jazz Gallery in 2017. This was my jazz gallery debut which was a big deal for me since it was somewhere I always wanted to play. Being a part of his project reminded my how good it felt to be able to be myself musically and still be appreciated for that alone. Since then, I’ve improved my mental health and lifestyle tremendously, leading to a plethora of new and fulfilling opportunities.

In a meaningful artistic situation, there’s nothing wrong with expressing yourself aggressively or in a “masculine” way. People of all genders, sexual orientations and ethnicities do this all the time and it’s often totally appropriate and still respectful to the music. The problem appears when people who particularly enjoy that style of playing put other musicians who don’t sound like that below those who do. It’s even more problematic when musicians who play that way all the time, shame their peers and students for not wanting to sound the same way. Though far less common, there are also people who are so obsessed with “tasteful” and “melodic” aesthetics that anyone who decides to “go for it” immediately becomes “masturbatory” or “tasteless” in their musical approach. I’ve personally found myself caught in between the two for my entire musical career. This idea of “Caught in between the two” seems to be the theme of my identity in general. As a biracial child I was always considered “So Asian” by my american friends and “So American” by my asian friends never really caring to find an answer yet feeling like I needed to. This is one of the main reasons I identify so strongly with the bass clarinet. It’s different than a saxophone, yet people outside the classical world generally don’t think of it as a clarinet either. This also goes hand in hand with my gender identity. I’m biologically male, use he/him/his pronouns enjoy action movies and videogames, but for the most part always lean femme. I’ve always felt bad about gender-exclusivity in social situations. Terms like “bro time” and “girls night” both give me a ridiculous amount of anxiety because I’d rather bro-out with most of my female friends than random dudes but I also don’t wanna be excluded from something just because “I’m a dude.” I prefer being me; a bass clarinetist who’s “Barely a Dude” surrounded by people who see me as my own person without the labels of asian, male, female, saxophonist or otherwise.

This performance (and hopefully future project) will reflect all the facets of myself I wish to share with loved ones, friends (present and future), and the rest of the world full of other people like me that are always navigating binaries. It showcases music that speaks to my girliest tastes and fulfills my needs as a dude.