Greater Good: Linda May Han Oh Speaks

In response to a cascade of cancellations from venues and festivals, artists like bassist and composer Linda May Han Oh have taken their careers online. Oh, who lives with her husband Fabian Almazan, has been producing videos and appearing in livestream events almost non-stop, both solo and as a duo with Almazan. We discussed the […]

Linda May Han Oh

Photo by Shervin Lainez, courtesy of the artist.

In response to a cascade of cancellations from venues and festivals, artists like bassist and composer Linda May Han Oh have taken their careers online. Oh, who lives with her husband Fabian Almazan, has been producing videos and appearing in livestream events almost non-stop, both solo and as a duo with Almazan. We discussed the logistics and preparation required for these musical events online, her favorite digital moments over the last few months, and her views on the current racial and social climate around the world.

The Jazz Gallery: Hi Linda, how are you? Where are you?

Linda May Han Oh: I’m in Harlem, in our apartment. Fabian and I live up on 148th Street. We’re good, you know, keeping busy… A lot of fireworks at night. We still have videos due for different people, still doing some live-stream stuff like one with Dan Tepfer this week, I am doing a video for Terri Lyne Carrington’s Big Band project too.

TJG: Do you have a soundproof-ish space?

LO: It’s generally good. Sound is a difficult thing to deal with, unless you have thousands of dollars. Before we moved in we tried a few different things. We put another layer of ceiling with Roxul insulation panels, we put insulation and another layer of plywood on the floor. We even ordered Perspex to put around the windows. We’re trying our best. It’s not easy, but we’re trying.

TJG: The two of you have been prolific, it seems, both individually and together. Livestream events, Zoom events, videos and recordings… Did this start as soon as the cancellations began, or did it take some time to realize that this is what you would be doing for the long haul?

LO: You know, it naturally happened. Seemed like the best thing to do. As soon as it all started getting cancelled, we thought, what are we going to do? How are we going to stay active? A lot of it is thanks to friends and colleagues who have stepped up. The Jazz Gallery is a great example of that, with all the Zoom hangs and great discussions, all the videos people have been making. It’s the whole community banding together. Thana Alexa, Owen Broder, Sirintip creating Live From Our Living Rooms, Anthony Tidd creating Act4Music, Dizzy’s facilitating events. The Academic Bass Council lead by Steve Bailey. It has taken some amazing people to step up and put a lot of hours into building platforms to keep people connected. I’m grateful for those people, and for Fabian too, watching him with the Biophilia live streams, it takes someone special to say “I’m going to spend hours to figure out how to get these musicians together, compile these videos, make events for people. To stay active, to keep us creating. The Jazz Coalition, Musicares, a lot of praise is owed to those people.

Fabian has been so proactive. As soon as this all went down, he was on top of it with the gear, he’s so curious and tenacious with this stuff. Trying out different things, different software, different ways to optimize the process. I feel very lucky to be his wife and to see him facilitate all of this. I’ve learned a lot of tech stuff from him too, learning how best we can do this, how to substitute a live performance and get a wide audience. We’ve been doing our best to stay connected and creative.

TJG: You listed so many different events and organizations that you’ve been musically involved with since the beginning of the pandemic. What fully digital events, for you, have been the most emotional, the most meaningful?

LO: A couple of things. The first was an Act4Music event curated by Miles Okazaki. He wanted to do a day where we would interview elders, people in the scene who have been mentor figures. I asked Kenny Barron since both Miles and I have played with him, and he has been a huge influence. I’m a huge fan. I wanted to interview him and get his perspective. For someone of his caliber, what he has seen throughout his life, I wanted to get his view on what is going on right now. It was uplifting, inspiring, he has a positive outlook. To hear stories from back in the day about how he worked on his creativity, touch, time, feel, it’s good to stay connected to that. This virus is effecting many of our elders, as well as people who are still relatively young who have done a lot in the community. It’s important to reflect and cherish those relationships, to keep them alive, and hear from some of the more veteran community. We need to maintain this community for the vitality of the music. So that was pretty uplifting.

I teach at Berklee College, primarily in the bass department but also in the Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice lead by Terri Lyne Carrington. When this all went down, everyone was trying to figure out, How do we keep the students engaged? How do we stay creative and teach well? She has these gatherings every Monday, and so every Monday was just so special. She would bring in guests who normally wouldn’t be able to come to Berklee, and I think that was the upside of things being online, because we would have guests who were normally so busy they couldn’t get on a flight to Boston. The most memorable was having Angela Davis and Dr. Gina Dent. It was so special for all of the students to be able to speak to them and ask questions. I was in tears. This was in April or May, well before the George Floyd murder. Angela talked about the prison system, which needs complete reform. It would have been interesting had the talk been now, I wonder what it would have been like. But it was so powerful for these students to see. Even over Zoom, to meet someone who has made so much change throughout her life, was memorable.

We also had Wayne Shorter come in. It wouldn’t have been physically possible to get him to Berklee, so Terri and the rest of the team stepped up to organize it during the pandemic. It was possible for students to record and play for him, and they got to meet and hear from a veteran. He put things in perspective as well, in terms of the virus, how to deal with trauma, with points in your life that seem to be obstacles. We had another week with Henry Threadgill and Nicole Mitchell too. Each of these events was particularly moving.

TJG: There was the initial rush of concern about personal health and safety, and as it became clear that the virus is killing people of color at a higher rate, conversations started shifting to race. With the murder of George Floyd, so much about the current moment has become about racial disparity, but it seems like that conversation got started a lot earlier for you, in the lens of the pandemic.

LO: It’s definitely not new by any means. Compassion fatigue in the general public is a major concern, where if this stuff is in the forefront of the news then people gear up and are quite vocal about it, and then the next thing comes along and things die down. I hope that won’t be the case. I am optimistic that there will be change, and I hope there will be sustained concern, that things won’t just fade away. But it has been a powerful time, seeing people out in the streets, being vocal about things. I believe that protest works. I’d like to think some of it makes an impact. We do our best to donate to organizations that we believe are helping. But it’s unprecedented to have this in conjunction with the pandemic. Everyone should be out protesting, but minority communities are more at risk, and with the health system here being what it is…

I come from Australia where, for the most part, we have socialized universal healthcare. It is very good healthcare. It pains me to think that people are literally risking their lives to protest. But the fact that people are being careful is a good thing. You see people with masks, staying distant. It has moved things worldwide. In Australia, people have been inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, and there have been marches particularly pertaining to Aboriginal deaths in police custody. There was an amazing aerial shot of a BLM and Aboriginal deaths in custody protest where everyone was beautifully distanced so you could see the space between each person.

TJG: Where is Fabian from, where are you from, and do you each have family there still? Have you questioned the reality of living in New York, and thought about moving away?

LO: Yes, we have thought about it. Fabian was born in Cuba, grew up for some time in Mexico, then went to Miami, where he went to high school. I was born in Malaysia and we moved to Australia. For the moment, New York is definitely our home. Fabian has some family in Cuba, as well as Miami and Arizona, and my family is primarily in Perth and Sydney. It’s hard sometimes not to think about leaving, with Trump, with healthcare and the police system the way it is. It’s out of control. It’s unbelievable. I like to try to see different viewpoints, hear what others are saying, who have views that are not my own, but there’s so much misinformation, especially when it comes to socialized medicine. If not for the attitude of “everyone for themselves…”

In Australia, the quarantine laws are very strict. They require you to quarantine at the port of entry, and the government will pay for your hotel. It is taxpayer money, but the idea that it’s for the greater good… Even gun control, we had gun reform under one of our most conservative prime ministers. There were interviews with some rural farmers who initially were quite opposed to it who have literally said “You know, it’s for the greater good.” I wish there was a bit more of that here. I’m grateful to be living here, to be making music. I want to make this home better for us. I have a year or so before I can apply for citizenship, and before I can vote, but things need to change, it’s long overdue.

TJG: To ask a more pointed musical question: As you’ve been home a lot more, playing into your computer and camera, what have you been working on? Are you trying to keep up with the demand of the livestreams and recording, or is there something new happening in your fingers?

LO: I’m going back to fundamentals that I don’t often have time to take care of while on the road. Classical stuff, other things I’ve been revisiting. As part of the livestream process I’ve had to get more in touch with the technology, which has been great. I’ve learned a lot watching LinkedIn Learning videos, getting to know the gear, plugins, and software I have. That’s been rewarding and invigorating, and goes hand-in-hand with the streams.

I’ve also been looking more into orchestration, trying to orchestrate my own stuff for larger ensemble. As part of The Jazz Gallery Margaret Whitton Award, I have lessons with Maria Schneider and Roman Diaz. I want to have stuff prepared for Maria, some decent scores to show, so I’ve been checking out scores too. I was just checking out the Berlioz orchestration for the Schubert piece The Elf KingI find the art of orchestration really interesting, making something come alive with a larger ensemble.

TJG: It’s so good to hear that you’re keeping up with learning and exploring while also giving so much too. It’s inspiring to see those outgoing and incoming energies.

LO: I wish I had more time [laughs]. It’s funny, you would think that without touring and having to travel that you would have more time. But it ends up getting filled with things all the same. Even organizing things you have meant to organize takes time. All that extra learning, you have to fit it in.