Anthony Brown was an army grunt stationed in Germany when he first heard Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s 1966 composition The Far East Suite. Ellington and Strayhorn penned the suite after a State Department-sponsored goodwill tour of the Middle East and Asia in 1963 and a trip to Japan the following year. Their musical portraits of Turkey, Iran, India, and other lands they visited were big-band interpretations of the exotic Orient.

“It was ’79. A friend played the LP for me,” says Brown, now a jazz composer and drummer. Even on that first listen, he was struck by “its breadth of expression, the variety of styles, tonalities, approaches. Only later did I come to appreciate the sophistication of Ellington’s music.” He’s studied the suite many times since, and last year he wrote an arrangement of it that his Asian American Jazz Orchestra will perform this weekend at the Chicago Jazz Festival.

Brown is singularly suited to the task. His father, an American GI, met his mother, an Isuzu factory worker, in Tokyo shortly after World War II. “My mom and her girlfriends went to the American service club to listen to jazz and dance the jitterbug,” he says. “Dad did too. That’s how they got together.” But Brown’s maternal grandfather objected to the marriage. “He didn’t want an American in the family,” Brown explains, “and my dad being mostly black and part Choctaw Indian didn’t help.”

Growing up in San Francisco, where he was born in 1953, Brown and his two brothers were exposed to both sides of their heritage. “Dad was an avid rhythm and blues fan, so we listened to a lot of Dinah Washington and Nina Simone, and movie sound tracks too. And mom cooked early fusion dishes. Chicken teriyaki with corn bread and black-eyed peas.” His father, a career army man, was transferred to Okinawa in the early 60s. Brown remembers a privileged life with servants and martial-arts lessons. When his older brother took up the guitar, he picked it up too. His mother encouraged him, believing left-handed kids like Anthony were more naturally inclined toward the arts.

The Browns returned to the U.S. in 1966, settling in a white neighborhood in Los Angeles. “We experienced abject racism in taunts and stares–quite a shock after Japan,” says Brown.

He majored in music and psychology at the University of Oregon, where he’d switched from guitar to drums because “drummers have the most fun.” He’d decided that jazz would be his calling after attending the Newport Jazz Festival. “The music opened my ears. I was struck by how it was far more spontaneous and sophisticated than rock or rhythm and blues.” But in the early 70s Oregon only offered classical training. “There were only three or four of us interested in jazz. Not that I didn’t appreciate all the courses in Western theory and history, but I wanted to learn about other traditions as well.”

He got his chance during a four-year stint in the army, which had paid for his college education. He was stationed in Greece, then Germany. “I was a house drummer in a jazz club in Athens and soaked up all the jazz I could get at festivals all over Europe. They were more avant-garde than most in the U.S.” When he was discharged in 1980, Brown returned to the Bay Area, attracted by its nascent Asian jazz scene. Two years ago he received his PhD in ethnomusicology from the University of California at Berkeley.

Brown credits the polyglot sounds of San Francisco with having inspired him and his kin in the Asian-jazz boomlet. “You hear Canto-pop and Japanese ambient music in the streets of Chinatown and Japantown all the time,” he says. “You realize how strikingly different sounds can be made familiar. As I gained more fluency in Asian concepts, I started to notice how a melody can be improvised so that embellishment of it is the focus. The pace with which a piece unfolds–the sense of movement and momentum–is different from mainstream jazz; so is the instrumental texture. It’s like the way people walk in the Bay Area versus in New York–not as frenetic and purposeful.” He was also intrigued by Asian instruments. “Taikos, which I’d known in Okinawa, were a fixture in street fests. Not to mention all those Chinese, Japanese, and Indian stringed instruments.” In his doctoral dissertation on the techniques of Max Roach and other modern jazz drummers, he devoted a section to percussion instruments such as cymbals and tam-tams, which originally came from the Far East.

So when Brown formed his Asian American Jazz Orchestra last year, he not only included his old playing buddies, such as pianist Jon Jang and saxist Francis Wong, but also the Chinese instrumentalist Qi Chao Liu, who plays sheng (mouth organ), suona (Chinese oboe), and dizi (bamboo flute). “The incorporation of Asian instruments is the most notable feature of our band,” Brown says. “It allows us, in The Far East Suite, to recontextualize the piece.” Ellington and Strayhorn held notions of Eastern music that showed intense curiosity, he says, but not much depth. “I don’t think the suite is a flawless work.” Brown says he’s made the music “more raucous, more of a conversation among the players.” But, he adds, “I consciously kept much of Ellington intact. He was constantly expanding the boundary of jazz, going beyond category. He’d have appreciated my arrangement’s new dialects and flavors.”

The Asian American Jazz Orchestra will perform Brown’s arrangement of The Far East Suite at 8:30 PM Sunday at the Petrillo Music Shell in Grant Park, Columbus and Jackson. Admission is free. For more information about the Chicago Jazz Festival, call 312-744-3370 or see the pullout guide in Section Three. –Ted Shen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Saul Bromberger adn Sandra Hoover.