In Conversation: Sandra Chang on Promoting Jazz in Singapore
We find out more about JASS and its pivotal role in elevating the jazz experience in Singapore… also, Mrs Sandra Chang shares about her favourite places to chill and indulge in the music.
In celebration of International Jazz Day, we had the honour of interviewing Mrs Sandra Chang, the Board Director of the Jazz Association (Singapore) (JASS). As an avid jazz listener, Mrs Chang wants to bring her love for the music to a wider audience, hence, she aims to transform the city-state into a leading destination for jazz through her participation in JASS.
Ahead, we find out more about JASS and its pivotal role in elevating the jazz experience in Singapore… also, Mrs Chang shares about her favourite places to chill and indulge in the music.
When was Jazz Association (Singapore) created in Singapore, tell us more about its mission and what has been achieved so far?
Jazz Association (Singapore), also known as JASS, was founded in September 2016 with the aim of promoting the participation, engagement, and excellence of jazz in Singapore.
Our vision is to be a centre of excellence for jazz in Singapore, to bring the joy of jazz to people from all walks of life and across diverse communities, and to make Singapore a leading city of jazz.
Our mission is to play a strong part in lifting the Singapore jazz scene to new heights by:
- Forming a core pool of established, professional-level jazz musicians and facilitating continuing education in jazz
- Playing a major role in bridging the needs of the audience with those of jazz practitioners and other arts groups’ objectives
- Leveraging jazz as a unifying force to promote interaction, cohesion and inclusiveness among our diverse communities in Singapore
- Making Singapore a nexus for collaborations between Singaporean and international jazz musicians
- Developing Singapore a vibrant city for jazz for Singaporeans, residents and visitors alike
- Supporting eligible local jazz musicians impacted by the crisis with short-term financial aid
We are celebrating our 5th anniversary this year. During the course of close to five years, the two orchestras, Jazz Association Singapore Orchestra (JASSO) and Jazz Association Singapore Youth Orchestra (JASSYO!), have gone around the world to perform at various prestigious international jazz festivals such as the EFG London Jazz Festival, the Jazz Education Network (JEN) Conference in Reno, the JZ Shanghai Festival, the Thailand International Jazz Conference, the Borneo Jazz Festival, as well as the Singapore International Jazz Festival (or Sing Jazz) held in Singapore.
JASS also launched the Lion City Youth Jazz Festival among many other significant key events locally, such as Jazz It Up! A Jazzy Celebration of Chinese Songs (in collaboration with the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre (SCCC)) and the JASSO Pinnacle Concert, as part of our efforts to bring jazz to the wider communities and cultivate new audiences in Singapore. In response to the pandemic, we also quickly responded by rolling out numerous free online JASS@Home performances to bring respite to all locally and globally.
As JASS is a charity reliant on kind donations to sustain our work, we held the our inaugural fundraising jazz gala “Ella 100, Jazz Forever” in 2017 and followed up with “Some Enchanted Evening” in 2019. Most recently, we held the first-ever virtual jazz gala dinner in Singapore “Let There Be Love” which harnessed extended-reality technology to bring together a seamless performance featuring jazz diva Laura Fygi based in Amsterdam and our JASS Music Director Jeremy Monteiro and the JASSO Ensemble based in Singapore. It was wonderful being able to experience the support and love from our partners, supporters and donors alike, despite such uncertain times.
You have an interesting mix of personalities sitting at the Board of the Jazz Association, tell us more about these diverse profiles.
I am honoured to be working alongside a strong, committed and diverse Board comprising Dr Edmund Lam as Chairman, Mrs Susan Peh as Vice-Chairman, Mr Abdullah Tarmugi as Treasurer as well as Professor Jeremy Monteiro (who is also the JASS Executive Director & Music Director), Ms Karen Li-Mei Chan and Ms Sally Liew as my fellow Directors. JASS is also honoured to have Professor Tommy Koh as Patron and Mr Albert Chiu as Honorary Chairman.
Collectively, their strong leadership has guided JASS from its infancy to where it is today, and steadied us through the pandemic. Each of our board members brings to the table an array of unique perspectives stemming from their own diverse backgrounds, enabling JASS to stay ahead of the current arts scene and chart new territories with confidence.
As a jazz lover in Singapore, I am heartened that I can indulge my passion for jazz and be a part of this meaningful work that JASS does in its efforts to elevate Singapore jazz.
You have just organised a “virtual” gala dinner in support of the association’s objective. A substantial amount of funds has been raised during the evening. What have been the lessons learned from this “virtual” jazz gala dinner – a first in Singapore!
Preparations for the “Let There Be Love” gala started way back in 2019 as originally the plan was to hold a “live” gala in July 2020. Of course, with all things, it was disrupted by the pandemic but we were very grateful to the kind donors and supporters who expressed understanding and stayed the course with us as we turned our efforts to transform the event into a “virtual” gala. Over S$650,000 was raised through our first virtual gala dinner which is also Singapore’s first virtual jazz gala. In view of the very challenging climate, we are deeply grateful to our partners, supporters and donors for their unwavering support.
While there have been many lessons, I think the greatest is what our Guest-of-Honour Minister Edwin Tong said in his speech during the gala, which I believe resonated the most with us: “Life is a lot like jazz…it’s best when you improvise (George Gershwin).” When the pandemic hit, we really had to dig deep and lean on the spirit of jazz which is improvisation and creativity to keep our mission going.
While the experience of watching a virtual performance is not the same as that of watching a live performance, the virtual setting pushed us to think of creative ideas to make the whole gala experience an engaging one still. I would like to say that I felt we managed to deliver an amazing set of performances with the help of extended reality (XR). I remember being blown away by the performances, and being able to have the digital presence of international jazz diva Laura Fygi with us that evening was simply delightful.
The main three avenues of work for the Jazz Association in Singapore along the coming five years?
JASS will remain steadfast in our work aligned to our vision and mission. We will continue to develop jazz education, excellence and outreach in Singapore, as well as strengthen cultural ties between Singapore and the rest of the world. We intend to expand the jazz arts community, advance education through scholarships, bring jazz to the wider communities, cultivate new audiences in Singapore through outreach activities, and support eligible local jazz musicians impacted by crises.
In the coming three to five years, we also hope to develop more programmes and performances that further utilise the platform of jazz to better reach out to the various segments of our community. For example, we will continue our efforts in youth development through the Lion City Youth Jazz Festival and scholarships, and inclusivity collaborations with Very Special Arts Singapore. We also wish to broaden the work we have done over the past years; for instance, in addition to “Jazz It Up! A Jazzy Celebration of Chinese Songs,” we are planning to widen the Jazz It Up! series by including Malay and Indian classics and giving them a jazzy treatment, through which we showcase Singapore’s musical heritage as a unique multi-cultural and multi-racial tapestry.
How big is jazz today in Singapore? How many bands in the state-city and how many jazz events staged in a non-covid 19 year?
While it is difficult for us to provide an exact number, local jazz stalwart and Cultural Medallion recipient Professor Jeremy Monteiro (who serves as JASS Executive Director and Music Director), had shared an estimation with me that prior to COVID-19, there were about 10-20 large ticketed jazz concerts each year, and about 50 smaller ticketed or free shows a year at venues such as Esplanade Concourse, open-air stages or places like the Botanic Gardens.
Personally, I find the local jazz scene to be thriving as there had been many club gigs happening in jazz clubs, such as Maduro before the pandemic. Due to the pandemic, many performances and gigs have been affected as live performances were brought to a halt, but the measures are easing up gradually as we monitor the situation, and I have every confidence in our local jazz scene and in our musicians’ ability to adapt to the new norm.
From teenagers to seniors, is it easy in Singapore to find suitable jazz classes or jazz academy?
I am heartened that jazz is a now a Music Elective programme in our secondary schools. In fact, during the JASS’ Lion City Youth Jazz Festival 2019’s finale concert, Guest-of-Honour Mr Ong Ye Kung, then-Education Minister, announced that the O-level music syllabus had been revised to include jazz to much applause from the audience.
There is also a degree programme at LASALLE College of the Arts, through which many of our past and current JASS Music Scholarship recipients are honing their art and building up critical knowledge and skills to be jazz musicians. The hobbyist of any age can also look for music centres and teachers who have the London College of Music graded jazz series, similar to the other classical graded programme offered by the Royal School of Music or Trinity College. Based on exchange of information with JASS Music Director Jeremy Monteiro, I understand that currently the London College of Music programme is the only one that has a Grade 1 to Grade 8 programme in jazz along with the Associate, Licentiate and Fellowship levels. And of course, there are good teachers in the local scene teaching jazz privately or in music schools such as Mei Sheum (private) and Jordan Wei (Singapore Raffles Music College) and several others. What I have shared is not exhaustive and it is also our hope and ambition as JASS that the local jazz scene will continue to thrive and deepen.
Pertaining more specifically to JASS, we also conduct several Jazz Appreciation Talks and Jazz Technical Workshops annually. For instance, the Jazz Improvisation for Classical Musicians workshop for the public to attend and learn more about jazz has been very popular. I attended one of the Jazz Appreciation Talks where I really enjoyed exploring and understanding the evolution of jazz from the early 1900s through to the present day under the guidance of JASS Executive Director & Music Director, Professor Jeremy Monteiro, and his musician friends, who provided delightful improvisations and performances of the genre’s milestones alongside a discussion on the different sub-genres of jazz, making it an interactive and engaging session.
One of our pillars is local youth-musician development and that is one of our main intentions behind the development of the Lion City Youth Jazz Festival (LCYJF), which was launched in 2017. Held annually, it is a week-long bandstand learning programme inclusive of rehearsals and workshops involving international jazz mentors, and it culminates in a ticketed finale concert featuring both these esteemed jazz mentors and our youth orchestra, JASSYO!. Mentors over the years have included Benny Golson, Randy Brecker, Lewis Nash, Carmen Bradford, Kenny Washington, Antonio Hart and more.
In fact, we just concluded our “LCYJF 2021: The Count and The Duke” and the live-stream of the sell-out Finale Concert featuring the repertoire of jazz greats Count Basie and Duke Ellington is free in celebration of UNESCO International Jazz Day and with April being Jazz Appreciation Month. Head on to JASS Facebook and YouTube channels to check it out now.
What are your favourite places to listen to jazz in Singapore?
My favourite (Pre-Covid) places are,
MADURO – the location is ideal … small and intimate, you feel you are in a private room with the musicians.
& “COOL CATS”… it reminds me of jazz clubs in Europe and the USA. A very “chillout” atmosphere with jazz music.
You are also a yacht lover. Have you staged jazz events on a yacht or by a marina?
Jazz has always been part of the chosen music repertoire whenever I am onboard a yacht in Europe, Asia or other parts of the world. But to date, I have not staged any jazz events on a yacht or by a marina. I must say, it is a WONDERFUL idea and collaboration to seriously contemplate as yachts, marinas and jazz go together hand in glove…. Nothing quite beats watching a beautiful sunset onboard, in a relaxed mode, with “Cool Jazz” playing in the background.
If you were to name one name who has influenced you greatly for your love of jazz, who would that be?
The one shining person in my life who has influenced me in my love for jazz is my late, older brother by 11 years. He introduced an “intoxicating” culture of jazz into our home. From a very young age, I was listening to Miles Davies, Dizzy Gillespie, The Russian Jazz Quartet, Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson and many such illustrious artistes and Jazz Greats. From then on, I honed my own love of jazz to the present day, attending concerts and jazz festivals around the globe. Jazz is now an essential part of my DNA.