“A Raw, Powerful Expression of Humanity:” An Interview with Jeff Fairbanks

David Johnston

2012-13 Composer-in-Residence Jeff Fairbanks (middle) with members of his brass band Street Beat


2012-13 Composer-in-Residence Jeff Fairbanks chats about his musical background – listening to his father’s Jazz and Dixieland albums, singing in Gospel choirs, playing in Salsa Bands, and studying East Asian music. Learn about Jeff’s role in Manhattan’s Chinatown funerals, his ensembles Project Hansori and Street Beat, and exciting collaborations with host organization Flushing Town Hall.


First off, congrats on being awarded the 2012 Sammy Nestico national jazz award and the opportunity to guest conduct Mulberry Street with the Airmen of Note’s Jazz Heritage Series concerts in Washington, DC. Mulberry Street, which fuses traditional East Asian music with Jazz, seems to encapsulate who you are musically. You describe the title piece “Mulberry Street” as “experiences playing in a Western brass band at Buddhist Chinese funerals in the heart of Manhattan’s Chinatown.” How did you become involved in playing Chinatown funerals?

A few years ago I was invited to join Red Mike’s Festival Band.  This is a brass band started by Mike Acampora in 1929, now run by his widow, Louise Acampora.  They’ve played Chinese funerals for decades, as well as Italian feasts.  Long story short, the row of funeral homes on Mulberry Street used to be Italian-run when that area was part of Little Italy. As Chinatown expanded through the area, the parlors were eventually taken over by Chinese owners.  Although the new owners brought in traditional Chinese bands, they simultaneously maintained the long-held ceremonial brass band tradition of the previous Italian owners. The result was and still is a multicultural gem.  The New York Times just covered this I believe.

Over the years, you’ve culturally immersed yourself in many different musical traditions. Could you describe some of your early interests and experiences?

Aside from academic training in Western Classical and Jazz, I’ve been lucky to get a lot of practical experience in traditions I wasn’t exposed to at school. During my years of college at Tampa, I sang in a Gospel choir at my church and also played in many Salsa bands. I spent many hours hearing and making music in these styles, absorbing it all. So before even getting into Asian music I already had a hunger to branch out beyond the universe I knew in music school, even college.

What came first for you – trombone, jazz or something else?

I started piano lessons at I believe age 8, thanks to my grandmother’s insistence. Trombone started at age 11 with middle school band. I heard plenty of Jazz and Dixieland from my father’s music collection at home growing up, but didn’t get training in it until college.

When did you first come to hear traditional Chinese and Korean music? What about the music caught your attention?

I first heard Korean music when I was 21 while at University of South Florida. My wife (my friend at the time) was an exchange student from Ewha University in Seoul, and gave me a CD of samul nori percussion music by Kim Duk Soo, which amazed me. Although she was a strictly Western-trained cellist, she know about samul nori and thought I’d like it. My first exposure to traditional Chinese music was through the Red Mike band, after I came to New York. In both of these musics I get a raw, powerful expression of humanity.  I love the bright tambres, the emotion, and the ‘between the notes’ nuances that, like Jazz, defies written notation.

You’re the creator of the 17-piece multicultural big band ensemble Project Hansori. The band boasts some of NYC’s top Jazz musicians and was featured in your Mulberry Street recording. What were your purposes and goals in creating Project Hansori?

I believed I had something new to offer by taking this East-West angle with the music. I have no interest in duplicating what’s already been done in either tradition. As a composer I had already moved in this East Asian direction, and I saw a great vehicle for this voice in the large jazz ensemble format.

You also recently created Street Beat, a 5-piece brass band that specializes in brass-based music of various ethnic traditions, including Shout (Gospel), Banda (Mexican), and Klezmer. Could you describe your latest Street Beat projects?

There is an amazing wealth of brass-based traditions around the world, developed as the Western European instruments spread to many different cultures.  Street Beat is a vehicle for the few of these traditions I’ve had time to dig into (there are many more).  For instance, I hope to make time to learn about Indian and West African traditions as well, both of which sound very unique and interesting. Aside from private gigs, we played at the 42nd All Nite Soul fest at St Peter’s Church on October 7, which I was excited about.

Who are your favorite collaborators? What have been some of your favorite musical experiences in NYC?

My recent time with Sonagi Project (Korean percussion group) was the highlight as far as collaborating as a guest. I also really enjoyed playing with Soh Daiko, a Taiko group, just a month ago here. With Project Hansori, even though I’m leading it, it always feels like 18 collaborators and is a musical high point.

How did you come to the decision to settle down in Queens? What is it about this borough that attracted you? What is the music community like there versus the rest of NYC?

I left Florida and came here for the career opportunities. My wife and I felt a connection to Queens and our first neighborhood of Flushing was a good location for us. Queens has an underdog feel versus other boroughs, and musicians here try to promote our borough’s musical status. So a win for the Queens community is a win for each individual. I like that it’s the most diverse, has the most new immigrants, and there’s a driving energy in that.

For your residency at Flushing Town Hall, you plan to do something completely new and outside of your comfort zone. Could you describe your project?

I committed to compose a piece using as my only tool the piri, a Korean wind instrument.  I’ve always relied on a piano, which I’m sure affects the nature of what I write.  So I thought if I use an Eastern instrument instead, my resulting piece will sound very different.

It seems that you’re already being absorbed into the Flushing Town Hall community. Could you describe your role in their Korean Culture Forum held last month?

I was invited as a panelist, and I talked about how and why I fuse Jazz with Korean music; and also of being a non-Korean pursuing a Korean art form, how that’s possible, and why I do it. Also, I was very excited about performing as a special guest with the Korean percussion group Sonagi Project at Flushing Town Hall on October 19th. It was a real collaboration where they put us in a room, introduced us, and let us organically put a musical program together from scratch in a couple hours. I loved it!

Are there any similarities or differences in composing or performing Jazz and the other musical traditions you’ve become familiar with?

On the surface, Korean music, for instance, and Jazz are so different that they’re incompatible in a serious context, barring a well thought-out, studied approach. I’ve had to deconstruct each tradition into small bits to see which ones can work together. But in Korean music, especially Pansori, the concept of Han, deep suffering from oppression, comes from the same spiritual place as the Blues concept in Jazz. They share a root, and if you listen past the surface you can hear it in each.

You’re extremely busy as a composer, trombonist, arranger and bandleader. How do you keep motivated?

It’s probably because I enjoy it so much. Especially when bringing in a new piece or new project and hearing the music for the first time, this keeps me going. Giving myself new challenges does, too.