Composer and pianist Alan Chan’s music often takes inspiration from his life experiences around the world, with a take of surprising wittiness and humor. Coming from a classical background, he began composing for jazz big band under the mentorship of Gary Lindsay in Miami, then Vince Mendoza and Shelly Berg in Los Angeles, and Jim McNeely, who fanned his flame of desire to create works for jazz ensembles.
As an educator, Alan directed the El Camino College Concert Jazz Band and the Jazz program for five years. He presented more than 20 concerts in the community and conducted over 120 big band compositions from across jazz style periods. His work as an Adjunct Professor and Coordinator of the ECC Jazz Festival has earned him an Achievement Award for Distinguished Teaching and Student Learning in December 2017 from the Academic Senate.
He was also a guest artist and clinician at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA), Hong Kong Jazz Summer 2016, and a judge of international/national competitions such as Percussive Arts Society Composition Contests, SCI/ASCAP Student Composition Awards and ASMAC Bill Conti Big Band Arranging & Composing Competition. He is a voting member of the Recording Academy.
For more than a decade, he has been focused on creating unique music for his 17-piece Alan Chan Jazz Orchestra (ACJO), which is comprised of top studio/jazz musicians in Los Angeles. Their debut “Shrimp Tale” album was released in 2014, which received rave reviews and radio plays across the U.S. ACJO appears in Los Angeles venues such as the Baked Potato, Vibrato Grill Jazz, the Huntington, Vitello’s, Catalina Jazz Club, Westin Bonaventure Hotel and the Jonathan Club. His band also presented concerts at the Brooklyn Public Library, Stone NYC, and ShapeShifter Lab in New York City.
In recent years, Alan Chan began to collaborate with Chinese instrumentalists to explore the possibility of merging jazz, improvisation, and traditional Chinese vibes into a dramatic and innovative form. ACJO’s new project, “Moon Walk,” with pipa (Chinese lute) virtuoso Min Xiao-Fen (New York City), was premiered in Los Angeles in August 2018 and subsequently on the East Coast in Brooklyn Central Library in New York City in February 2019. “Moon Walk” was selected to be featured at the Jazz Education Network Annual Conference in Orlando in January 2023.
Professional groups that have presented his works have included the Grammy-nominated Brussels Jazz Orchestra, Millennium Jazz Orchestra (the Netherlands), Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, Taipei Percussion, Taipei City Chinese Orchestra, Symphonic Jazz Orchestra (Los Angeles), and La Jolla Symphony.
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“I used to be the karaoke for my classmates. They would want to sing this song, and I would do the accompaniment for them. They wanted to hear a song, and they asked me to play. That’s how I started as a composer.”
“I wanted to write music to tell stories from many walks of life.”
“My experience is that you have to discover your interests, which will take a lot of time and effort. Then, you start connecting with people in the music industry. Fortunately, because I attended USC, there were many already working musicians, so I maintained those connections.”
A composer writes music. You could call it a songwriter. It’s similar. I write songs, but I also write symphonies, big band charts, chamber music, and I’m writing an opera, too. Basically, it’s a person who creates the music.
Since I was in high school, I grew up in Hong Kong and came to the country in 1997 when I was 18. I was six years old, and my mom stopped by a music store and casually asked me, ‘Would you like to learn the piano?’ I said ‘Yes,’ and that’s how I started. They didn’t force me or do anything. I started learning the piano and became interested in the notes on paper. That’s when I realized my interest in actually writing music.
I started channeling melodies and listening to other composers’ works and symphonies.
I used to do karaoke for my classmates. They would want to sing this song, and I would do the accompaniment for them. They wanted to hear a song, and they asked me to play. That’s how I started as a composer.
I arrived in the San Gabriel Valley in 2004. I was attending USC as a doctoral student, and I started making a lot of friends in San Gabriel Valley.
First, I was in East Pasadena, and then I moved all over the place. I was in Hollywood for a little bit. I was even on the West Side for a few years. But then I was on a journey for about five years and was kind of a nomad. I was traveling between here and Brooklyn, New York, and attending a professional training program for big band composers.
This is Jazz big band, like Frank Sinatra or Duke Ellington. That kind of 17-piece Jazz big band.
I call it Jazz Orchestra because I like the 17-piece with saxophones, trumpets, trump bone, and rhythm section. But I can do more than a typical swing kind of music.
I want to use it as a tool to express myself in many different ways, and that has always been a little thing inside of me. When I graduated from USC, I got into that workshop in New York. I started writing my big band music, and that’s how I started writing jazz.
I moved back in 2014, and now I teach in a community college. That’s how I settled down and started doing a number of gigs here. I will also be playing at the Huntington this fall at the Meet Autumn Moon Celebration.
I think it’s interesting because I’m from Hong Kong. It’s a financial hub of the world and very rich. You’re often expected to be successful and make a lot of money. Nobody would imagine being an artist. But I grew up in the 90s, which was a very interesting time because the culture of Hong Kong was starting to expand in the form of film. A lot of movie stars started to work in Hollywood, and a lot of composers started writing for movies. So, my generation is more interested in cultivating ourselves.
I wanted to write music to tell stories from many walks of life.
I came here as an international student, so it is different than a domestic student because there are many restrictions on what I can do in terms of having job opportunities.
I noticed a lot of musicians were already working when they attended grad school. They’re doing gigs, teaching, or working at church. I didn’t think of those opportunities until I got to Los Angeles. When I started meeting with a lot of people, they were already in the studio; they were already union members and were going to recording sessions.
I started attending some recording sessions, including one episode of The Simpsons. They book a studio for 3 hours and record all the songs. What is interesting is sometimes some of these songs were rock bands, some were orchestra, and some were choir. They would set up the studio in many different ways and can move from one area to another. They record the whole episode in two and a half hours. They have the budget and the resources to make fresh music every episode. And that just blew my mind.
I got my doctorate degree in classical composition and graduated in 2008. The career path usually for graduates, especially for doctoral students, is going to teach in colleges.
There were literally no jobs. No jobs, zero. But I got an opportunity to attend a conference. I started writing big band charts thanks to Professor Shelley Burke, who encouraged me. He said, ‘Why don’t you start writing big band stuff?’ I started writing all these big band charts and sending them out to competitions and conferences. I got into this conference in South Florida.
Chuck Owen, a prominent composer of the big band genre, invited me to attend. Their band is going to perform my music. One piece that I wrote, the piece is called A Shrimp Tail, and I wrote it here in LA. This piece was performed, and I met composer Jim McNeely, the director of the BMI there. He said, ‘Why don’t you apply, come to New York, and we will workshop your music and get some feedback?’ And that’s how I started my journey: writing for big band and jazz.
Sometimes, I have some musical ideas in my head, and I want to write. Often, they are as easy as a melody. Sometimes, I have other ideas, like texture. I have a string texture that I want to write.
If you think about paintings, you have all these different styles, right? So sometimes it’s more graphic, like more image-oriented.
Sometimes, I want to write a song dedicated to my grandmother. Then, I would go from that direction. So it comes from many, many directions. Eventually, it would be a piece with a number of measures and a double bar line indicating that’s the end of the piece.
I don’t know where it’s going to go. And then I start working on the materials, and I start developing passages, and then things grow organically, and I connect the dots. It’s not a linear process.
Very much so. When I get the chance to work with the band once before any performance, I will carefully check everything, ensuring there are no typos. I am always eager to hear what I think in my head because it involves combining different instruments. This is called orchestration.
So, is it effective? Is that the effect that I want? Am I using the right mute for the trumpet or trombone? Because if you use the wrong mute. It sounded different.
So, there is still a little bit of a process of revision. We usually rehearse at the Union in Burbank, and after that, it’s like, wow, my God, I need to make changes. And then, I’ll bring the final version to the performance.
Definitely. And also something unexpected. And when you see a 17-piece big band. There is a cultural connotation because swing music used to be the popular music of this country, and it’s kind of this really old style. I’m trying to bring it to a new territory, kind of a new regime of sound and creativity because they can do a lot more than what they have been doing, they have been doing in a particular style.
I’m trying to give the audience a new perspective on what this big band can do. Basically, it’s like an orchestra, like a symphony orchestra, but only 17 people, which is a lot more economical than a 70 piece orchestra symphony orchestra, but it can do a lot of things, and so I am into experimenting and trying to make it also fun to listen to as well.
I like the wisdom of older people, and I would like to meet Herbie Hancock, the jazz composer and pianist. He’s the director of jazz at the Walt Disney Concert Hall and has been in the field for many years. He’s the master.
It is interesting because we go through a path that is designed already. You go through the school system; you pursue your bachelor’s degree, then master’s and doctoral degrees. Everything is well thought through, and when you get this degree, you will achieve these.
My experience is that you have to discover your interests, which will take a lot of time and effort. Then, you start connecting with people in the music industry. Fortunately, because I attended USC, there were many already working musicians, so I maintained those connections.
They can go to alanchanjazzorchestra.com and go to Apple Music, Spotify, and Amazon Prime as well.