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July 3, 2023IM -
Growing up in a fairly traditional Chinese household, one might assume that guitarist Cory Wong of Local 30-73 (St. Paul-Minneapolis, MN) might be drawn to more traditional forms of musical expression. That assumption would be incorrect.
“When I was growing up, I was a Chinese kid,” says Wong. “My grandparents moved to the US and started a Chinese restaurant in Minneapolis, which was family-run for a couple of generations. I felt Chinese, and my grandparents, aunt and uncle, and my dad all spoke Chinese.” The other half of Wong’s parenting, however—his mom—was of Irish descent. “So, I was a Chinese kid until I went to kindergarten and they told me I wasn’t,” he laughs. “I am half Chinese, but I don’t look it. That has always been sort of an identity crisis for me.”
Like all good artists, part of Wong’s artistry has involved finding himself and settling on that identity. “I’m a Wong, but I’m also a Murphy. These are two very strong backgrounds,” he says. “I think as we learn to express ourselves, we need to also understand ourselves better to communicate who and what we are. That can lead to confusion until we figure it out.”
Wong’s father, also debunks assumptions, listened to jazz in the house. “People would never guess when I tell them about my upbringing that I grew up hearing Weather Report and Keith Jarret,” says Wong. “When my dad grew up in the late ’60s and early ’70s there was a great deal of social change happening. I think he was trying to find a sense of community through jazz.”
Wong says that a sense of community has always been at the root of jazz music. “You can see it in the people who listen to jazz and go to jazz festivals or jam band festivals. It’s a shared cultural event, even down to the backstage hangs. Certain genres have a sense of belonging. I believe my dad was looking for that. But he was also interested in music that was interesting.”
Jazz records playing in the house certainly interested Wong from an early age—and got him wanting to make music. “I started out on bass guitar,” he says. “When I was in middle school, some kids in my school started a band. I was jealous, so I looked for other friends to do that with me.” The first challenge to his dream came when he couldn’t find a drummer. “I tackled that problem by teaching myself how to play drums in the middle school band room, and then I taught a friend how to play drums.” Another friend’s family had a bass lying around in the attic. “I was the bassist, though, and we couldn’t have two bass players. So I saved all my snow shoveling money and bought a Stratocaster, taught myself how to play guitar, and then taught that friend to play bass.”
And Wong was off and running with his first band—and the first of many self-created opportunities over the years. In the late 1990s, he says watching bands on MTV lit a fire under him. “Being a 12-year-old skateboarder kid watching Weezer, Foo Fighters, Green Day, and Red Hot Chili Peppers was amazing. These guys were doing something that made me feel alive. It helped me realize music can be a tool to make other people feel something.”
Wong also began to wonder what it would be like to be the one writing and playing all that music. “That idea opened a whole new door for me,” he says. It also gave him a chance to further explore both sides of his heritage. “Chinese folk music and Irish folk music both involve lots of pentatonic chords and melodies. There’s also a driving sense of forward momentum in Irish music. And lots of what I play is pentatonic because it lies well for the guitar. So, there’s already a natural draw for me.” Listening to Wong play now, it’s easy to hear that lineage. “Maybe it’s subconscious, but it’s definitely a part of who I am musically.”
Wong wound up attending the University of Minnesota
and the McNally Smith College of Music. At age 20, he decided to pursue music professionally. He credits his music school environment and mentors for putting him on the right track—with one in particular, Prince’s drummer Michael Bland singled out for showing Wong the nuances of performing in an ensemble.
That Minneapolis native Prince was in general an enormous influence on Wong’s music should come as no surprise. “Cutting my teeth as a professional in the Twin Cities, I was often the only one in the band who wasn’t a Prince alumni,” he says. “I grew up learning under many of his players. I remember Michael behind the drums always yelling at me, telling me how it should be done. I thought they hated me. But then I learned that was the ‘Prince school of negative reinforcement.’ If you were one of the up-and-coming cats and they were riding you, it meant they thought you were good and wanted you around, but they wanted you to play on an A-list level.”
Wong says Prince himself was one of his biggest inspirations not only about performance, but also on what and how Wong writes. He goes on to point out a more subtle and intriguing influence. “The way people feel time is different in different parts of the world,” he explains. “Even in the US, time feels different between the East and West Coast. The Minneapolis time feel is quite distinctive, very metronomic, but with a forward-leaning feel. It’s very much in time, but it feels like a freight train coming at you.” This specific time feel is identified with Prince’s music, as well as other groups that came out of Minneapolis, and it’s one of the biggest things that Wong pulls from Prince’s influence. “My guitar sound and the way I play has momentum not just from speed and attack, but also from that time feel.”
Following college, Wong largely focused on jazz music and performed in Minneapolis and Saint Paul jazz clubs. He also performed in the Nashville music scene on a regular basis as a session musician and guitarist and started touring with several groups. He calls this period his learning curve in “vibrant funk soul.”
In 2013, Wong met members of the Ann Arbor-based band Vulfpeck. A jam with the group was later rerecorded and released as a self-titled album, Cory Wong. He has appeared on every Vulfpeck album and toured with them since 2016, highlighting his singular style of bringing rhythm guitar to the forefront of the band’s sound.
The year 2017 saw the release of his debut solo album. His second solo album, released the following year, reached number 19 on the US Jazz Albums chart. Wong has also performed with a lengthy roster of artists including Local 47 (Los Angeles) member Dave Koz, and the house band of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Recent projects have included a Grammy-nominated new age album titled Meditations with Local 802 (New York City) member Jon Batiste. In 2021, Fender released the Cory Wong signature model Stratocaster guitar, which incorporates Wong’s designs.
“When it comes to picking a genre that you really like playing,” explains Wong, “Part of the deal is finding out where your musical voice best fits and feels most natural. There were a few years where I really wanted to be Pat Metheny [a member of Local 34-627 (Kansas City, MO)],” he laughs. “Eventually, though, I found my own voice.” He has played just about everything including classical music with the Minnesota Orchestra, but he says his genres are funk R&B, and pop.
“The thing with having a unique voice on any instrument, is that it’s important to know when to use it, and how it will come across if you do,” he continues. “That’s true not just in music, but also in life. If you’re Tony Robbins, you’re not giving inspirational speeches at every gathering. Sometimes people just want to hang. Sometimes people want me to be guitar player Cory Wong, and sometimes they just want me to play the guitar. I have to use my judgment on which one they really need: me the individual, or just a musician who can nail a guitar part.”
That individual voice takes center stage in one of Wong’s favorite projects so far. Since 2021, he has been the front man for his original production called Cory and the Wongnotes, which he describes as a live variety show. “We recorded it live on a TV show set that I built myself,” he says. “Think Saturday Night Live meets The Late Show—but if the musicians took over. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by the whole talk show arena, but these shows were never focused on the music. I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if it was musician-driven?”
In a typical show, Wong interviews guests like Bella Fleck of Local 257 (Nashville, TN), Larry Carlton, also of Local 257, and Victor Wooten. “I get to hang out, I interview them, and we talk about life, music, and artistic concepts. But I also record a song together with them.” The result is a variety show on Wong’s YouTube channel, where he’s simultaneously recording a live album. “I’ve done two albums like this, both recorded live on set for the show.”
If Wong’s career proves one thing, it’s that the work of a musician these days is as varied as you want to make it. “There are aspects of this job that are also sometimes confusing,” he says. “Making sure you’re getting paid at fair rates, for instance, and making sure you’re being treated fairly, in general. It’s valuable to have access to a community like the AFM to advocate on your behalf and help set the standard for what is objectively appropriate.” He adds that this is also true for employers, especially when it comes to negotiating with many different entities.
Local 30-73 Secretary-Treasurer David Graf says Wong has been an active member of the local for years. “Cory is one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen, while still being a sweet, funny, down-to-earth person,” says Graf. “Prolific is an understatement. Besides the touring, he is constantly releasing new songs, videos, and other online content. Where other people might see limitations, Cory only sees opportunities, and we are proud to have him as a member of our local.”
As for that Chinese restaurant, Wong says his family doesn’t run it anymore. “My generation is where it ended and passed it on to a different family,” he says. But he did help keep it in the family by naming an album after it: Wong’s Café, with a picture of the restaurant on the album cover.