In his breakout CD “110 West,” Asian pop bandleader and keyboardist Jay Hung shows he totally hit the books and flipped on the light. The heart and soul of jazz is there in his fingers that fly over the keys with stylish grooves in the track “Welcome to My Love” (which features rich, outstanding vocals). Another original, “Ocean Road,” is a beautiful orchestration bringing in passionate guitar riffs and snazzy statements from Hung on piano. Surprising rhythmic diversions jump out in “Nostalgic Memory” and “Drop of a Beat” has wildness and attitude.
Jay Hung has found his voice and broken free, providing the very first glimpse of what the spirit can accomplish against odds like poverty, societal misconceptions and a lack of educational resources. Wherever “110 West” is, it definitely leads to a glowing jazz boulevard.
Why do you think jazz is not yet popular in China?
I’ve met people who have mistaken the music of easy-listening pianist Richard Clayderman for jazz in Taiwan and China. Although just recently jazz has been part of the educational system in Asia, schools lack knowledgeable teachers who understand jazz.
Also, jazz players in Asia often do not make a big income. They probably make less than the average office worker. Parents don’t want their children to become musicians unless the children are really interested. So most musicians including myself end up being pop musicians, section players or arrangers.
How did you first get interested in jazz?
I bought a GRP label cassette tape when I was 16 years old. When I heard it, I did not know why but the music got me excited. The tape included Chick Corea, Dave Grusin and other great players. During that time, I loved listening to those types of music but did now know how to play. No one in my hometown could teach me this type of music. To learn more about it, I had to go Hollywood to gain training.
What was it like to oppose the commonly held belief that piano is for girls, not boys?
As I grew up in Taiwan, many people including my parents believed that a boy playing piano is too feminine. It was quite normal to think like that in traditional Taiwanese culture. My parents were convinced that boys should become engineers, farmers or construction workers. On the other hand, I was a stubborn and rebellious child. I did not care what others said; I always fought for what I believed. Even though many people discouraged me, I did not give up on loving music. I picked up an abandoned piano and managed to study music on my own.
You are an example of hard work and intense determination. What gave you the strength to hold onto your dreams?
Even though I was poor, I felt there was nothing more fun and exciting than wonderful music. It is that feeling of energy that kept me going. It is very hard to explain, but music gives me self-satisfaction and self-esteem. I feel great happiness and achievement when I play a song that people usually would not play.
Despite growing up in poverty, I was anxious to have that interest of mine become part of my career. I know there are many people who cannot achieve their dream job, but I was desperate to make it happen.
When I entered the pop industry, another pianist said to me, “The things you play are of no use. If you keep on playing jazz, you will have no future.” I hope I can prove him wrong one day.
Who are some of your music idols in jazz?
Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, James Brown, Tower Of Power, Cory Henry, Dave Grusin, Pat Metheny, Lyle Mays, Michel Camilo, Jimmy Smith, Jeff Lorber, Joey DeFrancesco, Four Play, Marcus Miller, Toto, Sting… There are just too many I admire.
What was your formal training like?
At the beginning, I taught myself by listening to a lot of Western music on cassette. I was writing out the score by ear. To catch all the sounds, I played and rewound tapes numerous times until they broke. I had to purchase the same ones over and over.
I finally left Taiwan in 1996 to go to Hollywood and Los Angeles for further music education at Musicians Institute [KIT – the Keyboard Institute of Technology]. There I learned jazz, funk, rock and other music. The teachers were strict but I was determined to practice six to eight hours of piano every day to make sure the study would pay off.
Do you have a preference for piano or synth?
I personally love the sound of synth more than piano, but piano is the most fundamental instrument. Usually before I start to compose music, I will first decide on the direction of the style.
Often, I start using piano when creating a song because piano makes it easy to distinguish the chords and melody. Once they are done, I will change the piano sound to synth to get the feel that I want. I frequently use synth sound for comping and background such as pad, synth lead, string or loop.
For me, the most important element in music is the grooving of the drum and bass. As long as there is a good groove, a simple loop of lick will sound awesome.
Did you have any mentors?
I had two mentors for two years during my study in MI. One was Steve Weingart, who used to be Dave Weckl Band keyboard player. He also played for many famous artists such as Chaka Khan. He released many of his own albums.
The other mentor was a Brazilian player Rique Pantoja who graduated from Berklee College of Music. He played for artists such as Abraham Laboriel. They were my mentors while I was studying in LA. After I went back to Taiwan, I was pretty much on my own.
What is the most important thing for a jazz pianist to know?
Sounds obvious, but the most important thing is to practice. Someone one said to me, “If you didn’t practice for one day, you will know. If you didn’t practice for two days, the teacher will know. If you didn’t practice for three days, the audience will know.”
In addition, I think the jazz pianist should accept challenges. If the music sounds too difficult or even impossible to play, that is the song they should open up and practice. This will allow you to gain new technique.
How do you like your piano tuned when you are about to perform?
I usually use Nord Stage 2 Keyboard. My preference in sound is the most basic without any compressor.
What inspired the new CD “110 West”?
I’ve wanted to create my own music for a very long time, because I have been creating songs for others and never did it for myself.
Ever since I graduated MI, I have worked in the Asian pop industry as a section player over 18 years. I have arranged about 300 songs for famous Asian artists and done about 500 live concerts.
After many years of playing music for someone else, music has become a business rather than my own interest. My passion for music had changed its form, so one day I felt a strong need to compose my own music to get back to that initial stage of passion. “110 West” is the first original jazz album I ever created, and I genuinely put all my heart into this.
How does it feel to release your first CD?
A big sense of accomplishment and excitement! I feel that my new life has just begun.
What songs are the most meaningful and why?
To me, the first song on the album called “Nostalgic Memory” is very meaningful. This is a cover of a traditional Taiwanese song from the 1950s. The song reminds me of my father who passed away; he often listened to it on the radio when I was a little boy.
The song represents Taiwanese culture and the singer is a historical legend. I have turned the song into jazz. It combines bebop and the pentatonic scale that completely break away the image of a traditional style into a whole new perspective.
You have a real groove going on in “Welcome to My Love.” Talk about that track.
“Welcome to My Love” is a fast shuffle song. These sixteen-triplet grooves make music exciting; it makes your body want to bounce with the rhythm.
While I was studying in the US, I loved listening to shuffle music, such as “Rosanna” by Toto. Because the melody is very simple, it allows listeners to memorize it right away. This song is a mixture of pop and jazz, which I think all types of listeners can enjoy.
What were some of the challenges of recording and producing it?
Since I did not have any company support, I faced numerous challenges creating the album. I did not know anything about registering ISRC codes, printing a cover, copyright issues and more. In spite of all the ups and downs, I have learned so much.
When everything is completed, I felt a great satisfaction and excitement. During the process of recording, some musicians were willing to help me out more than I had expected. The feeling of friendship made a big difference.
Who is in your band and how did you all meet?
I do not have a fixed band. Most of the players from my album are my friends I met in the pop industry, but they do not live in Taiwan. They are just like me, working as section players for pop artists.
What is your vision for your music?
I believe my music can combine with many possibilities. If you listen to the songs on my album, you may find every song combines different genres including pop, rock, EDM and even classical. I like to experiment with jazz and create something new.
The pop music that you play: is it originals or covers?
The pop music I play is all business; I basically do it for a living. They are cover songs, mostly for famous Hong Kong, Taiwanese and Chinese pop artists.
Where do you live now?
I live in Taiwan, and I often go to China for concerts or TV show performances as a section keyboard player. Jazz has taken its place a bit, but it is very small. There are a few live jazz houses, but they cannot be compared to North America. Not only the size, but the skills and standards still need to be improved.
What was the Hollywood experience like?
During my study in Hollywood, I met many classmates whose musical instruments were all paid off by their parents. But surprisingly, I also met some students with not so many benefits yet they can play music wonderfully without using expensive musical instruments.
Even if the instrument may be a little out of tune or broken, if the player is good, it will still sound great. I discovered the soul of the player makes the music brilliant.
Where have most of the 500 concerts you played been held?
I have never performed my own music in concert before. All the concerts I have done are for pop artists. My position in the concert is usually as bandleader, music director or keyboardist. About 95% of concerts are held in Asian concert halls or stadiums. Sometimes I do TV shows in China as a keyboard player. Other than that, I’ve performed in casino shows in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
What do you most want people to know about you?
I want the world know there is a passionate Taiwanese guy right here. My dream is to perform in American jazz festivals and the Java Jazz Festival [in Indonesia] so that I can meet other great players.
“A messed-up life maybe a beautiful life.” Sometimes the worst day could be the most meaningful day you ever experience. I’ve had many discouragements in the past in music, but negative energy can sometimes turn into an extraordinary force to do what I believe in.
For more information, visit www.jayhungmusic.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Jay Hung.
© Debbie Burke 2018