Thai, American Musicians Come Together for Jazz Exchange

29 April, 2019

At about 9 o'clock on Saturday night, Noppadol "Long" Tirataradol walked quickly out of Alice's Jazz and Cultural Society, a jazz club in Washington, DC.

Tirataradol, a musician and educator from Thailand, looked up and down the street. He was looking for a tall man carrying a musical instrument.

There he was! Tirataradol ran across the street and caught up to Percy White, a bassist and member of the DC Jazz Collective.

The men shook hands and exchanged kind words about each other's performances earlier that night. "Man, you are a beast," White said, praising Tiratardol's musical skills.

Today, we will explore that warm exchange between the two men– one that took place across the borders of culture and language.

International Jazz Day

April is Jazz Appreciation Month, and April 30 is International Jazz Day. On this day, musicians, educators, and fans celebrate the music at festivals, shows, and other events around the world.

In celebration of Jazz Appreciation Month and International Jazz Day, VOA Learning English talked with jazz musicians and educators who took part in an international exchange between two cities: Washington, DC and Bangkok, Thailand.

Cultural Exchange – DC to Bangkok

The exchange project started with an arts grant from the DC city government. Will Stephens, a lawyer and musician, organizes a non-profit group that runs jam sessions in Washington, DC. The grant money he received from the city helped send musicians from Washington, DC to Thailand. It also paid for a visit by professors from Thailand's Mahidol University to America's capital.

The DC Jazz Collective. From left to right - Oren Levine, Evan Samuels, Percy White, Will Stephens, Lionel Lyles
The DC Jazz Collective. From left to right - Oren Levine, Evan Samuels, Percy White, Will Stephens, Lionel Lyles

In January, Stephens traveled to Thailand with four other musicians. The group, called the DC Jazz Collective, performed in Bangkok and at the Thailand International Jazz Conference, a large and important jazz education meeting hosted by Mahidol University. Just over ten years old, the conference hosts thousands of educators, students, and listeners each year.

The trip gave the American musicians a chance to see similarities and differences in jazz culture between the two countries. Stephens noted that jam sessions in Thailand were similar to the ones he organizes in Washington

"One of the activities we did when we were in Bangkok was we sat in as the house band at a local joint that has a weekly jazz jam session. And the tunes that they call at the local jazz jam session in Bangkok are all the same tunes that would get called at our jazz jam session on U Street... So, it was fun. It's like we were sharing the same book."

Stephens also noted important differences. He said, for example, that many more women were studying jazz in Thailand than in the United States. It is not very common, Stephens added, to see female instrumentalists playing at jazz jam sessions in the United States.

Lionel Lyles is a saxophonist and educator who traveled to Thailand with the DC Jazz Collective. Lyles described his first experience in the Southeast Asian country as "amazing," and explained that he considers these kinds of exchanges "necessary."

"Music is a universal language," Lyles said. As a musician, "what we are doing is having a conversation."

Stephens shared Lyles' ideas about music and language. He noted that jazz especially is "a good genre" for these exchanges "because it is its own language, because it is a way of communicating with someone, even if you can't communicate with them in speaking."

Exchange Part Two – Bangkok to DC

The second part of the exchange project took place this past weekend. Teachers from Mahidol University, including Darin "Joe" Pantoomkomol, David Parente, Krit "William" Buranavitayawut, and Noppadol "Long" Tirataradol came to Washington DC.

Here, they played in several shows and at Stephens' jam session.

On Saturday evening, they played a joint show with the DC Jazz Collective.

The event, at Alice's Jazz and Cultural Society, started with a DC Jazz Collective performance. The group played their own pieces and some older well-known jazz tunes. The musicians also performed songs written by the former King of Thailand, who was a noted saxophonist and composer.

Then, the visiting musicians from Thailand performed.

Like the Collective, the Mahidol group also played songs members had written, famous jazz pieces, and arrangements of other songs. They played ballads and fiery, fast tunes.

The group also performed music that drew from Thailand's rich history of traditional music.

The crowd watching the show included Americans of all ages and backgrounds. They applauded loudly after each song.

Elizabeth Singletary, a DC resident, was in the audience. "In this day and age," she said, there is too much talk about "this culture against that culture ... in music, it just doesn't matter."

Why are these exchanges important?

Both the American musicians and the Thai musicians said they felt cultural exchanges are important. They serve as "a reminder of how small the world is," noted Stephens.

Pantoomkomol highlighted the importance of information sharing in the modern world. He added that he and his fellow musicians wanted to see what jazz culture is like in the country of its birth. The Thai musicians hope to take ideas back home with them. The new information will help Thai music culture develop, as well as that of nearby countries.

Buranavitayawut said cultural exchanges are true to the earliest spirit of jazz. He explained that the development of jazz, "the music that connects us together," was the result of a "melting pot" -- a mix of people, ideas, and cultures in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Buranavitayawut said he and his colleagues from Mahidol University were "proud to be part of the melting pot." They were proud, he added, to be making that melting pot "bigger."

I'm John Russell.

And I'm Ashley Thompson.

John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

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Words in This Story

grant -- n. an amount of money that is given to someone by a government, a company, etc., to be used for a particular purpose (such as scientific research)

beast – n. informal ­­– a person who is very skilled or talented

jam session – n. a gathering or performance in which musicians play together informally without any preparation : a session in which musicians jam with each other

tune -- n. a song or composition

amazing -- adj. causing great surprise or wonder : causing amazement

conversation – n. a talk between people in which ideas are exchanged

genre -- n. a particular type or category of literature or art

arrangement -- n. a piece of music that has been changed so that it can be performed by particular types of voices or instruments

ballad – n. a slow song

applaud – v. to strike the hands together over and over to show approval or praise