As part of Singapore International Jazz Battle (SIJB) 2018, the SIJB Interview Series aims to get to know the very people who form the heart of our jazz community in Singapore.
In this last instalment, we talked to Aya Sekine who is the programming director for the Singapore International Jazz Battle and the Forum 2018. Aya is no stranger to the Singapore music scene, having been based here for over 15 years She is currently the director of We Love Jazz SG, an arts organization dedicated to strengthening the foundation of the jazz and improvised music community in Singapore.
1. How did you get into jazz and music in general?
I didn’t know what jazz was until much later, but my ears started to recognize certain music and sounds which I found out later that they were a part of whole definition of jazz. Harmony, instrumentation, feel and a certain tone in the music.
I listened to a lot of music growing up, and at one point I’ve realised there were some parts distinct from melodies. I was also very intrigued by big band harmony particularly reacting to horn lines, having grown up in early 70’s Japan, listening to music on TV which were mostly live and played by big bands behind pop singers.
During my junior year in high school (Singapore American School), my mom recommended me to join summer program at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, and showed me an advertisement from a Japanese newspaper for their five-week summer school program. She said it was the school Sadao Watanabe attended. This 5 weeks became my turning point. Everything was new to me and it showed me how big the world was. I met interesting people from all over the world and there were some Japanese musicians who became my great support (I was 17!), showing me how to get into jazz. They gave me recommendations and I bought about 20 CDs & cassettes mainly from Tower Records.
This is when I got to know Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Sonny Rollins, Red Garland, Horace Silver, Wayne Shorter, Dexter Gordon, and all my heroes as well as other wonderful music I still listen to that was not limited to jazz. After 5 weeks was over, I had no other interest but to go back to Berklee. With my aching heart missing the whole experience, I went back and found a jazz piano teacher, finished high school, and enrolled into Berklee’s performance diploma program the following year. I haven’t stopped or looked back ever since. 28 years since then.
2. What do you think about the jazz scene in Japan in comparison to Singapore.?What genre or style of jazz is the jazz scene in your country based on (Straight ahead, Funky, Smooth)?
Actually I’m not an expert of Japanese jazz scene as I’m usually in Singapore, but I am there very often especially these couple of years. The ecosystem is definitely bigger, and they are never short of place to perform and there are venues for so many types of jazz as well as places for jazz lovers. Japan is crazy about jazz. A lot of Bebop, Straight ahead, Free Jazz/improvisations, and fusion jazz seem to be popular, but there are a lot of sub categories within these genres, and there are audiences to receive the niche. It’s Jazz otaku heaven.
3. What do you think can be done to improve the jazz scene in Singapore?
To be honest, it’s a tough place to practice your art and feel rewarded when you have reached certain point in your jazz career. The country doesn’t support art and artistic businesses. We are expected to produce like any other corporate businesses, and it’s not possible.
I believe we artists are all meant to give, but when there are only limited places or opportunities, it’s hard to keep going or be inspired. We feel rejected and not appreciated for all we do. Think of it as fruit or vegetables. If you are a farmer, you want people to eat, maybe buy and consume your produce, no?
This is why I felt the threat of being an artist and ever since then I started to work on the environment and opportunities towards the future of artists here in Singapore. We Love Jazz SG (‘WLJ SG’) is a vehicle for this purpose. We are not short of talent, but the gaps in the ecosystem are making things hard to grow and sustain. If I continue with my analogy of being ‘farmers’ as artists, currently I feel the land to grow fruit/vegetables is limited as well as the sun. The water isn’t supplied enough for the produce to grow and to have the full circle of life; the ecosystem has gaps. I am really seeing the whole jazz ecosystem as nature’s product.
We are also lacking in communal places and opportunities to celebrate and showcase the work of local jazz practitioners. Our struggle to showcase takes up time and energy. Not everyone is given chances. For this I feel a community jazz festival and jazz competition can be very powerful support, but it’s a lot of work and I know this from firsthand experience. We do know that we just need to consistently work towards the goal we have set, measure the impact of each project so we can learn and improve it further with even better focus. For the best outcome, constructive discussion and criticism is always great.
Last but most importantly, we need to put more prominence to Singapore’s own jazz history. We don’t exist without the effort of predecessors. Surprisingly, there is presently no effort on part of any authority or institution to actively archive Singapore’s jazz history. During my Master’s research, I could only find one official research done, on Singapore jazz (by Yuepeng Zheng) and I am, believe it or not, the second researcher. However, my research was more about jazz ecosystem of Singapore. Yuepeng is currently one of our directors, and my collaborator for packaging the Singapore Jazz Research Project we are conducting as part of WLJ SG’s work.
4. You are a director of WLJ SG, which is one of 2 registered not for profit organisations of jazz in Singapore. What do you think about JASS (Jazz Association of Singapore) directed by Mr. Jeremy Monteiro? What are the differences/ similarities in the mission? Will you be collaborating in the future?
I see JASS as an organisation to raise awareness for Singapore’s jazz in the global jazz scene, while creating opportunities for the young generation of local jazz practitioners to hone their craft to the highest calibre while representing Singapore. On the other hand, WLJ SG is a community organisation specialised in inspiring & strengthening individuals by creating communal opportunities through ground-up movements.
Both organisations have different focuses but are vital in shaping Singapore’s future in jazz. Jeremy is a great inspiration for us in that he is hard working and makes differences. There are several other unofficial initiatives I know that work consistently to keep things inspiring in their own unique ways. As registered organisations, JASS and WLJ SG are registered CLG (Company Limited by Guarantee) and publicly responsible because we are recognised by authorities and allowed to tap into certain grants portals, etc.
Of course we have talked about collaboration and often we try to support each other whenever possible, but we haven’t had specific opportunities yet (mainly because both organisations are constantly busy with own initiatives). I make a point to always keep in touch and in my head we are already working together towards improving Singapore’s jazz scene and creating awareness to both existing and new audiences.
5. Do you think the Singapore International Jazz Battle and the Forum 2018 will inject new blood and talents into the Singapore Jazz Scene and to what extent?
Yes I believe so, in many ways. I have designed the whole event to impact our jazz practicing community of all levels to benefit.
First and foremost, it is the fact that there is a competition in your own country. This presents a new opportunity for some, and through our open call we have already seen many familiar and also fresh faces. This means that the SIJB platform is accessible and will hopefully become something that pushes practicing culture to the next level. It is a necessary platform.
Also currently we don’t have anything official which can include both local and international participants. Our partners in Thailand (Thailand Jazz Competition and Thailand international Jazz Conference) were both telling us there are not enough participants from overseas though they are both open. This is our way of connecting the regional jazz community so we can co-market our competitions, aiming to enlarge individual communities for more and more opportunities outside of our own country’s.
You may not see the changes right away, but it needed to start. I saw the needs and my team fully agreed. The work has been put in. Now we need an audience and more participants to join the excitement.
6. You are the artist director of the Singapore International Jazz Battle and the Forum 2018. What can the general public, who have no prior knowledge about jazz music, learn if they decided to attend SIJB 2018?
I would love to walk everyone through jazz, but this particular convention focuses on showcasing the effort of the hard working young musicians, so there might not be much of a tutorial element. However everyone will get to experience great performances of the finalists as it’s basically a concert, and the thrill that finalists are going through.
Our welcome concert will be a great opportunity for anyone to experience diversity, and we hope to welcome all types of people into this signature event. The program features current LASALLE students, solo division accompanying trio, our management team, and international adjudicators! Audience can look forward to a wide spectrum of expression in jazz 🙂
If the audience are interested in discussion of what the community members feel about jazz, they must attend our forum! It is in fact a highlight – all of us are so excited about hearing what panelists want to talk about and share their own feeling of jazz in Singapore and beyond.
If the audience members are interested in knowing more about jazz or Singapore’s own jazz community, they can definitely join our other events such as We Love Jazz Party (community jazz festival) and smaller & intimate Core Outreach Series.
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7. What drove you to start We Love Jazz SG, and what do you hope to achieve in the local jazz scene?
I saw a huge gap in the support system for jazz, and I suffered from it, from time to time I come across frustrations. Once I move on from my frustrations, I could only see the potential. I’m born into a family of pioneering entrepreneurs, and we just can’t help turning the gaps into opportunities. I also am attached to Singapore’s artistic community for many years. My family loves Singapore so much. You can read some of my answers in previous sections.
Background story about We Love Jazz SG here:
8. If you can choose one act to see live, would it be Bud Powell or Wynton Kelly? Why?
I love Bud Powell too but I spent a lot of time listening to Wynton Kelly growing up as a jazz pianist. When I was still in Berklee one night at home I was listening to the trio and it hit me like a thunder. The trio swung so hard, I felt like I saw the swing graphically. Swing is an inevitable aspect of jazz for me.
9. What are you currently working on musically.
I’m practicing fluency in improvisations – melodies and standards in all 12 keys. Practicing ‘time’ at 15-20 bpm, and making sure I am relaxed at any tempo with a good sound. Also, I’m writing new compositions and refining old ones when I can.
10. What is one principle you live by? (e.g. quote or philosophy)
‘Music is biological’ (John Sharpley)