1. What is your name and your profession(s)? Jordan VanHemert, Saxophonist, Composer, Professor.
2. What is your ethnic background and what is your citizenship (US native or naturalized etc.)? I am Korean American.
3. Are either/both of your parents musicians or somehow involved in the music industry? Neither of my parents are musicians.
4. Please tell us a little bit about your experience, either growing up as an AAPI in America, or as a person of Asian descent who immigrated to America, whichever applies. Growing up as an AAPI in the United States felt very lonely. I had a group of a few close Asian friends, but the town where I grew up was not very diverse. When I think about the experiences of othering that I grew up with, I think a lot of them pushed me toward solitude and also to music.
5. How connected do you feel to your heritage/culture(s)? As an adoptee, I did not necessarily immediately feel connected to my Korean heritage. However, it is something that I have, over the course of my life, deliberately sought out. I am and have always been proud of my Korean heritage, and even now, some of my favorite music to play is Korean folk music. This music feels so close to my heart. Life is a journey, and with everything that I do, I am trying to take a step toward my identity and myself as a Korean American musician.
6. 6a.) How did you get into music? Did you major in music in college? Where did you attend college/university (and grad school(s), if applicable) and in what subjects did you get your degree(s)? When I was a young child, my grandfather sadly passed away and my family inherited his CD collection. I had always been fascinated with music, so I listened to every single one many times, but I stopped when I played The Essential Charlie Parker for the first time. Upon hearing Charlie Parker’s rendition of “Stella by Starlight” from Charlie Parker With Strings on this compilation album, I was obsessed with jazz. I went to my local library and checked out all of the CD’s I could and listened voraciously. Upon learning how to play the saxophone, jazz was all I wanted to play--and playing the saxophone was all I wanted to do. I majored in music in college...I hold degrees in Music Education and Jazz Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Michigan, and Central Michigan University.
6b.) When and how did you decide you were going to pursue music professionally? What were your parents’ reactions to you deciding to pursue music? Do they support your music career now? I decided to pursue music professionally during a career day in middle school. We were asked the age-old question of what we wanted to be and I had no idea, so I just said the first thing that came to my mind: “I think being a professional musician would be really cool.” My parents have been very supportive of my career in music, but I acknowledge that my experience as an adoptee is a little bit different than those who might have been raised by Asian parents.
7. What are a few of your (music) projects of which you are the proudest? What were your roles on those projects? A few of my favorite projects include a recent album called I AM NOT A VIRUS , which is my debut album as a leader. I wrote or arranged all of the music on this project, and it is very special that I was able to speak to the Asian American experience directly with this project. I also have a few songs coming out that I recorded in March 2021 that I am quite proud of. I am joined by a very special band for this project that includes the great bassist Rodney Whitaker.
Beyond those projects, please feel free to name some of your other credits as well as any brands/companies you officially endorse. I was the Music Director for saxophonist Derek Brown’s album All Figured Out. I will also be doing some composing and arranging for Kevin Bujo Jones (Whitney Houston, the Isley Brothers) on an upcoming release that he is working on as well as contributing a performance to a holiday compilation for PARMA Recordings. I endorse Vandoren saxophone accessories and Selmer Paris saxophones.
8. Describe to me your dream project. I would love to record with one of my Asian American music heroes someday, someone like Linda May Han Oh or Jon Irabagon or a cross genre album collaboration with some of my other favorite artists like Priska, Jason Chu, AJ Rafael, or Dan Matthews.
9. What are some obstacles you have encountered (if any) being an AAPI in the music world? What are some obstacles you have encountered (if any) as an AAPI in general (non-music)? Conversely, has being an AAPI ever helped you in the music industry? In the music world, I have found that there are a lot of negative stigmas about Asians in music. Whether it’s the idea that Asian musicians are excellent technical musicians but lack the ability to play expressively or that all Asian music is simple and Asian musicians lack the ability to play “more complex European music.” Particularly in the world of jazz and improvised music, I have heard the same things about expression and also a reference that Asians lack the ability to “swing”, play with soul, or play the blues. And of course, there’s discrimination. Navigating those stigmas has been a difficult but worthwhile pursuit. There are so many people who broke ground to make my career possible (Jon Jang, Linda May Han Oh, Francis Wong, Vijay Iyer, to name just a few), and I am hoping that through my career, I can do the same for others.
10. 10a.) Who are some AAPI musicians/composers/producers who have previously inspired and currently inspire you (if any)? Why? When I was a sophomore in high school, I first heard the great classical saxophone virtuoso Dr. Kenneth Tse. I was blown away by his technique and his sound. I had not seen a lot of Asian representation in the saxophone world at that time, and to see Kenneth play meant the world to me. It was the first time that it actually dawned on me that playing saxophone professionally was an option for me as a young AAPI artist.
10b.) What are your hopes for the AAPI music community and your hopes for AAPIs in general? My hope for the AAPI music community is that we will realize how powerful our voices are. Throughout the repeated gaslighting we face, I think we often don’t realize that our music and voices have power. Then, when we do speak out, we are ignored. To my fellow AAPI musicians, I see you and I am listening.
11. If you could give advice now to your younger teenage self, what would you tell her/him/they? I would tell myself two things. First, stop caring so much about what other people think. Second, stop fearing failure so much--just do what you do. I grew up thinking that everything had to be perfect. Some of the greatest projects that I have been involved in have been projects where I have completely cast aside my fear of failure and freed myself from the chains of self-doubt. It has been a difficult journey, but rewarding.
12. Do you have any upcoming projects for which you are excited and about which you are allowed to share? Is there anything non-music-related on the horizon about which you would like to share? Like I said before, I have a project coming out in October on PARMA Recordings--I’ll be a part of a holiday compilation. This one is special because I have encouraged the label to reconsider what “Holiday music” is, so they will be releasing a special arrangement that I wrote to celebrate the Lunar New Year. I have a few other things in the works, but I think I will wait to share about those.
13. Name one or two non-music-related things/subjects about which you are also passionate. I am passionate about cooking and mentoring my students. Cooking is a good creative escape for me. When I was in college, I had a friend who told me “You can’t just play saxophone...you have to do something else.” So I started cooking as another means of creative expression.
I did not really talk about my teaching in this interview, but I am committed to mentoring the next generation of musicians and paying forward what my teachers gave to me. I am one of the faculty advisors to my school’s Asian Student Union, so I love to give to that community as well. I would be nowhere without the mentorship of my teachers, so I take every opportunity that I can to pour into my students in hopes of honoring their legacies.
14. Any final thoughts? (non-self-promotional). Alternatively, do you have any questions for me and/or the greater AAPI music community? Not at this time.
Clubhouse: @jvanhemusic Youtube: http://youtube.com/c/JordanVanHemert
Spotify: Jordan VanHemert