“That changed everything, once I went into that world,” Richardson said.
Richardson learned to play national anthems, including the Republic of China’s, in the US Armed Forces School of Music, where he trained after interrupting his college education to join the US Marine Corps in 1999. Stationed in Okinawa, Richardson served as a member of the corps’ marching band and also began studying Japanese, he said.
But Richardson had always wanted to learn Mandarin, so he bought a ticket to visit Taiwan a year after leaving the corps in 2003.
“I immediately started studying Chinese when I came back from Taiwan,” he said. “When you are in Chinese class, besides learning about history and food, you also learn songs.”
Richardson further honed his interest in Chinese music after re-enrolling at City College in Manhattan to finish his bachelor’s in Asian Studies, studying Mandarin on scholarships in China and in Taiwan, where in 2008 he spent four months at National Taiwan Normal University also learning to play the guzheng, he said.
“Then I started to play at Brown Sugar, in Taipei, four nights a week as a sax player,” Richardson said. “I didn’t want to leave Taiwan, even more so than China.”
Eventually, though, he had to come home. To pay for language courses, instruments and other expenses in New York, Richardson began performing on city streets, perfecting his vast repertoire that includes at least three dozen Chinese and Taiwanese songs — many by his favorite singer, Teresa Teng (鄧麗君) — that he plays at the museum on his clarinet and saxophone, including his Taiwanese-made P. Mauriat.
“My performance of the songs is far beyond simple rendering of the melody,” Richardson explained. “It’s performed in the manner that only someone who listened and worked thousands of hours on Chinese music could perform it.”
Nowadays, Richardson’s schedule is jammed with gigs whose venues are as varied as his career. Besides playing regularly with his world-roots band, the Brown Rice Family, Richardson said he is also practicing for upcoming performances at Radio City Music Hall and Carnegie Hall, and is currently acting as a saxophone and clarinet player in the HBO hit series Boardwalk Empire.
Still, Richardson said he enjoys heading to the museum to “fundraise” and perform a selection of American, Chinese and Jewish songs that he identifies by holding up American, Republic of China and Israeli flags. Among the Chinese-language songs he played that Sunday were Teng’s The Moon Represents My Heart (月亮代表我的心), Huang Zhan’s (黃霑) A Laughter from the Sea (滄海一聲笑), and a crowd-pleaser for virtually all Taiwanese museum patrons: the Republic of China’s national anthem.
“He’s so great,” said Wang Yi-feng (王億鳳) of Taoyuan, who was visiting New York City for the first time. “How did he learn to play all those songs?”
Wang, who applauded after Richardson saluted the audience, said she had not seen the 2011 YouTube video of Richardson performing the ROC national anthem at the West Fourth Street Station near NYU. That two-and-a-half minute clip recently began circulating anew on Facebook, drawing many positive comments from viewers like Chiu, who stopped to take a picture with Richardson.
But a few, written in Chinese and aimed at Richardson and Taiwan’s colonial past, were decidedly derisive.