Travellin’ Light

Jason Kao Hwang
Answers 20 Questions About Life on the Road

Hugh Ragin
Jason Kao Hwang, Saalfelden                                                                                    Jason Kao Hwang©2010

Jason Kao Hwang is a Jersey City-based composer, violinist and educator. Although he first gained international notice in the early 1980s with the cooperative quartet Commitment (whose Complete Recordings 1981/1983 is newly released on No Business), it was with his seminal Far East Side Band (1990-2004) that Hwang made an indelible mark in the synthesis of Asian music and avant-garde jazz. During these years, Hwang also performed in the ensembles of Anthony Braxton, Butch Morris and others.  His chamber opera, The Floating Box, A Story in Chinatown (New World Records), was named one of the top ten opera recordings of 2005 by Opera News. Hwang’s activities have been supported by Meet the Composer, National Endowment for the Arts and other institutions and foundations. He has taught at the elementary, secondary and university levels; he originated a course in Asian American Music for New York University. In addition to leading Edge (a quartet with Taylor Ho Bynum, Andrew Drury and Ken Filiano), Local Lingo (with kayagum virtuoso Sang Won Park, singer Thomas Buckner, bassist William Parker and multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee)., and Spontaneous River, a string orchestra, Hwang currently plays in projects led by Sabir Mateen, Bradley Farberman and others. He is currently composing “Burning Bridge,” an extended work for Edge and guest artists Min Xiao Fen, Wang Guowei, Joseph Daley and Steve Swell. The work will be performed this fall at the Chicago World Music Festival, Edgefest, The Bop Shop and The Freer Gallery. For further information, visit


What is the most difficult airline to deal with in terms of instruments and equipment?

All the airlines have eviscerated staff, especially in the area of customer service. I try to make sure my baggage is tagged correctly. If agent is tired, grumpy and burned out, the situation has to be appeased and managed so that nothing goes wrong.  I prefer getting to the airport earlier rather than later, so long lines at ticketing, security, or customs won’t stress me out. If everything is easy, I just kick back and listen to music or read a book. Warren Smith told me that way back in the 70’s, drummers could arrive at the airport 30 minutes before take-off with 8 cases of percussion, no problem. Wish it were so now, but those carefree days are long gone.
There was a period when different American airlines would pull me aside for an extra security check.  Opening my bags, looking inside my violin and scan me. Never happened on the European side.  Maybe I fit a profile. Anyway, it hasn’t happened in recent years.  
Violin/viola double-cases are slightly longer than the carry-on bag requirement. The agent usually don’t notice the case if it’s slung on my back.  And if they do, at a glance, the case looks regulation.  If I had the case on the ground, lined up with a suitcase, they might see that it’s a few inches longer.  With the case on my back, they don’t have a reference to scale their eye check. gave me this tip.

Which airline has the worst economy seating and food?

Hmm, seems to me that the airlines are universally mediocre…  Worst seats are when you’re near crying babies, or kids seated behind you, kicking your seat now and then.

Which airport is craziest for making connecting flights?

Heathrow in London, after newly implemented security measures, was a long-distance maze to get through.  How people were routed to new security points was odd.

What is the most important thing you ever forgot to pack?

This is embarrassing, but this happened a long time ago.  Leaving Berlin in the morning, with just a couple hours sleep, I left a good roll of concert pay on floor of my room, where I was packing. As soon as I got to the airport (no cell phones then) I called Ulricha, a wonderful woman who has housed musicians for the FMP festival for many years.  Thankfully she found my money and promised she wouldn’t tell anyone.  But of course, it was so hilarious to her, she told everyone!
What is your worst lost baggage story?

My case of electronic FX didn’t arrive in Seoul, Korea, where I was performing with Sin Cha Hong. For some inexplicable reason, it was on another flight scheduled to arrive the following morning.  So the next day I took a cab to the airport to pick it up my case. When I walked through the glass doors, lines of soldiers, with guns and German shepherds, charged forward from opposite ends of the atrium, closing in on me fast.   I had stumbled into a military exercise!  I just backed up and quickly exited, and watched the rest of their martial choreography through the large glass windows.  

What country hassles musicians the most at customs and passport checks?

Pretty rough getting into Canada. The folks at the Vancouver International Jazz festival are very good helping Americans fill out a multiplicity of forms.

Which city has the worst cab drivers?

In Posnan, Poland, cabs zoom at 90 mph to within inches of the car in front of them, and then, maintain that position for miles.  Pretty hair-raising. I was in Posnan with Mabou Mines, a theater company.

What is the best hotel that a presenter has provided for you?

The Hotel Krallerhof in Saalfelden, Austria, is a gorgeous resort.  With breathtaking mountain views, great restaurants, spacious rooms, and a luxurious swimming pool, it was a very very nice experience.  I performed with the Rova Sax Quartet in Saalfelden last year.

Do you travel with a laptop or a PDA? If so, how many times a day do you check your e-mail?

Haven’t gotten the cell phone/e-mail hook-up yet. A lap top is too big to lug around.  If I need to get some work done while traveling, I’ll bring it. Otherwise, I just go on the hotel or festival computer once or twice a day to check e-mail.  I’ll probably get an i-phone or some equivalent in the near future.

Do you listen to music on the road? If so, what device do you use?

My iPod was stolen recently, so I’ve returned to my portable CD player, an antique.  I have a set of noise-cancellation headphones for listening on the plane, but it’s not the best.  

Do you do your own laundry on the road?

I usually can bring enough clothes to get by.  When I’ve had longer stays in the same city, I’ll do laundry somewhere.  Sometimes I’ll have to wash a few items in the hotel sink.

What is your most nightmarish sound check to date?

99.99% of the time, we have excellent engineers who know the house system and are experienced with all kinds of bands. But once I had a sound check with an inexperienced engineer who had difficulties setting up the monitors and microphones, much of which should have been pre-set before our arrival. That’s why bands submit tech sheets.  Well, a half-hour had gone by, and things were progressing very slowly in this unfocused, circular way. When I realized that he wasn’t happening, I had to become an alpha-male and tell him what to do and how much time he had to do it. I had to impose my will or the sound check would have gone on and on and on. The band also helped, because musicians know how to get their sound. We finished our check on schedule, which allowed us time to have a good dinner and chill a bit before the concert. I talked to the engineer afterwards, and there were no hard feelings.  He was doing his best.  

What is the scariest food that has been laid out for you backstage?

Not scary, but I had trouble finding a bottle of water backstage at a festival in Paris.  All I could find was wine and champagne!
After a concert in Seoul, the presenters thought it would be funny to serve me live squid.  The squid is taken out of the aquarium, chopped up, and plated with the little pieces still writhing!  One piece gripped my chop stick and wiggled at me before I chomped it to death.  I only ate one piece.

What are your three favorite venues?

Henry Street Settlement House for the Vision Fest, the Roundhouse for the Vancouver International Jazz Fest, and Local 269, a hotbed of new music in NYC. 

Which cities have the best restaurants for late after-gig meals?

Istanbul (sea food!), San Francisco (bulgogi), Chicago (many choices) are great. 

Which cities have the best after-hours sessions?

A couple years ago Joe Morris produced a summer Hartford Fest series, and I played there, in the park on a huge stage, with William Parker’s ensemble.  The jam session afterwards, at a restaurant nearby, was hot. Excellent excellent players. 

What is the best city that closes down too early?

I dunno.  I guess I’m not a late-night party person, so I haven’t noticed. Outside the major cities, most restaurants close before 11pm. So after a concert, the only choices are funky diners. 

What is the best locale to have a day off?
The great cities in Europe have so much to offer, so much to see, there is no one best locale.  I enjoyed my time off in Saalfelden for the opposite reason. Just looking at the mountains and swimming. 

What is your cure for jet lag?  
I try to sleep on the plane, but never really pass out.  When arriving the next morning, being in the sun helps the body clock adjust.  I join the new time zone but try to go to sleep early. Usually the body wants to wake up around 5am, but I stay put and just try to rest.  The following days, I nap whenever I can. 

What is your best tip for the novice?
Focus on the music.

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