Making Music with a Mission

As the world grappled with the intensifying COVID-19 health crisis last spring, there were those in the U.S. who began referring to the plague disparagingly as “the China virus” and the “kung flu.”

Concurrently, according to Time magazine, the STOP AAPI HATE center founded by the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council has received more than 1,800 reports of violence or harassment against Asians and Asian Americans nationwide since mid-March 2020 when the coronavirus was officially declared a pandemic.

Coincidence? Dr. Jordan VanHemert, Hope assistant professor of music instruction in saxophone and jazz studies and a Korean American, doesn’t think so.

“I still have conversations with people who say it’s inconsequential and ask why I get so worked up about it,” says VanHemert, a West Michigan native. “I say, ‘Look, words matter.’”

“It affected how people see us, and it’s enabling the kinds of things I know [Asian and Asian American] students on this campus have experienced. People have yelled things at them, thrown things at them. And when you think about a school that’s supposed to be a safe place where students can pursue knowledge, pursue growth in their faith, anything that gets in the way of their pursuit to become their best selves is worth fighting against. And that’s what I’m here to do, to fight that.”

VanHemert, a nationally recognized composer and jazz saxophonist as well as instructor, decided to launch his counterattack through music: I Am Not a Virus, his debut album, was released in March on Big Round Records, a division of PARMA Recordings.

The eight-song collection, recorded in two days last July at the Jack H. Miller Center for Musical Arts while observing social distancing, showcases VanHemert’s quintet of trumpeter Rob Smith, bassist Kazuki Takemura, Andy Wheelock on drums and Hope adjunct professor of piano Lisa Sung. “These are friends and colleagues I’d really grown to enjoy playing with over the years,” he says. “Such was the case with Lisa. I met her in 2019 and I’ve really enjoyed our collaborations.”

“Jordan is a leader by nature,” praises Sung, also Korean American. “Very organized, but at the same time very approachable, just a wonderful, fun person to be around. Those usually don’t go together where musicians are concerned, but he has the best of both worlds.”

Despite its challenges and outrages, 2020 was in many respects a banner year for VanHemert, who also is founder and music director of the Holland Concert Jazz Orchestra. He was honored by the musical instrument company Conn-Selmer as a distinguished performing artist of the prestigious Henri Selmer Paris saxophone brand, recognized as “an elite musician, clinician, educator and composer.” He joined the staff of The Saxophonist magazine as jazz review and book editor.

However, ironically, it was the divisive and infuriating events of the past year that provided VanHemert the resolve to take on his proudest accomplishment: composing his first album.

“I want to be able to put music into places where words can’t go.”

Jordan VanHemert, assistant professor of music

“I’ve always known I wanted to record, because when I first thought about getting into music CDs were what really grabbed me,” he reflects. “Not being able to see live music, I knew I could always be transported by putting a CD into the stereo system. So I knew I wanted to record, but I never felt truly ready for it.

“Then I came to understand that you never really feel ready, that’s not a thing. I realized my emotions over COVID and other events had gotten so strong that I said, ‘All right, I have something to say and I need to say it.’”

Pre-release reaction to I Am Not a Virus was positive. Noted jazz critic Scott Yanow called the LP “quite impressive,” adding that the track “Autumn Song” — inspired by VanHemert gazing out his Hope office window last fall watching the leaves change — “could eventually become a classic.” Of course, though, it’s the works galvanized by ongoing social unrest that ring with the most relevance. As VanHemert explained in a television interview on Grand Rapids’ WOOD-TV, “I want to be able to put music into places where words can’t go.”

Besides the pensive, simmering “I Am Not a Virus” title track, the LP also features the melodic, propulsive “Justice for the Unarmed (BLM),” in tribute to the deaths of George Floyd and other African Americans that fueled the Black Lives Matter movement.

“That one came to me really quickly,” says VanHemert. “One of the themes I wanted to illustrate was Black-Asian solidarity because it is so important to me. Because of the friends I have, the mentors I’ve had, that’s where it comes from.”

Perhaps the most surprising selection on the album is VanHemert’s reinterpretation of “Arirang” (“My Beloved One”), the traditional folk song often considered Korea’s unofficial national anthem. “I originally planned to do all original compositions on the record, but as I was drafting the lineup ‘Arirang’ kept calling out to me,” he says.

“The ‘Arirang’ is a really important song, and I think when any Korean in our diaspora hears it, it immediately stirs something embedded within them. I guess I included it because it’s a song that has deep personal significance to me. When I crafted the compositions for this album I asked myself, ‘What does it mean to be Korean American in the 21st century?’ I always found the answer to that question through the ‘Arirang.’ When I listen to that song, I feel whole.”

The song affected Lisa Sung as well. “Yes, of course,” she says. “All his compositions I just love. They’re very original, very authentic, but with some traditional elements as well.”

After completing I Am Not a Virus, VanHemert says the next challenge was finding a label to distribute his work. “A bunch of labels wanted to own my music, and I wasn’t really cool with that,” he says, laughing. “I was like, ‘So, I’m going to write all this music, put my blood, sweat and tears into it, then you’re going to own it?’ I settled on PARMA because it’s a very artist-focused label.” So much so VanHemert says PARMA CEO Bob Lord will visit Hope this semester to give a guest lecture to music students on entrepreneurship in the arts.

VanHemert says he didn’t see any role models that looked like him growing up, which fills him with a sense of responsibility. Among other things, he serves as an advisor at Hope’s Asian Student Union.

“To me, it’s about planting seeds,” he says. “About doing what I can do, and frankly that’s what it takes for me to sleep at night. Every night I ask myself, ‘Did I do right by my students today, particularly my students of color? Did I do all I could to fight for a better world for them? Did I give them the opportunity to grow in the best way?’ Some days, that answer is no. But every day, that’s what I strive for.”