An Interview With Bruce Lee Historian Paul Bax

Paul J Bax and Pat Strong

Paul Bax has interacted with and interviewed many of Bruce Lee’s original students and unearthed a wealth of information, personal and technical. Here he discusses his book, Disciples of the Dragon – Recollections from the students of Bruce Lee.

What sparked your interest in Bruce Lee?

Bax: The year was 1983 and I was visiting a former girlfriend’s (Melissa) house with a friend and the movie, The Chinese Connection came on.  I had already heard of Bruce Lee but could never figure out what all the hype was about.  This movie changed all that.  I was on the path of discovering everything I possibly could about the late Bruce Lee and his art of Jeet Kune Do (and for you voyeurs, nothing happened with the ex-girlfriend).  I was currently a student of Tae Kwon Do under the late Charles Roth.  I had no doubt Sensei Roth was a tough man (especially when he cupped both his hands and slapped my ears when I would not let go of a grab) but as with most TKD classes, we were all just following the motions and basically were being trained as “wanna be killers”.  When you stick 30 people on a basketball court and teach forms with occasional sparring, you can’t expect much.  Why was it though that Sensei Roth had such a deep disdain for Bruce Lee?  I would ask questions and the answers were blunt and normally ended up with the same answer, “You cannot find a school anywhere that will teach you Bruce Lee’s art!”  Hmm.  So, I started delving deeper into whatever information was available about Lee’s art, which inevitably started with books and magazines.   Later, I followed that up with every video release available but more importantly, seminar videos of various JKD people teaching the art.

Was your training at this point merely a mix and match of martial arts or were you aware of your instructor’s intent to relay JKD/Concepts? Or did this come from the re-emergence of ‘original JKD’ in the media?

Disciples of the Dragon

Bax: Remember, I was training in Okinawa-Te at the time, which is what I earned my Black Belt in.  At the time, all anyone really knew about JKD was what was fed: JKD Concepts. I noticed a lot of discrepancies as to what was originally portrayed as JKD while Lee was alive and shortly after his death and then the information changed shortly afterwards.  So while we followed what most thought was JKD at the time, in the back of our minds we had this six sense that there was something more.  Or should I say less? Original JKD hit the scene in the form of videos’ from Poteet, Davis and several others.  My instructor was more of a coach/trainer.  Everything was informal working out at his house or in parks or at our normal school (the Okinawa-Te school) during “open practice”.  A lot of the times I would get a video and I would pass it on to and he would break it down. Of course it’s always better to experience things in person rather then just watching.  Ironically, I acquired a lot of rare video back then of guys like Paul De’Thouars doing private seminars that probably a lot of Silat guys would die for.  This is not the same stuff you would buy out of a magazine.  Being in Missouri, we did not have a lot of JKD choices although the California Martial Arts Academy had a school here at one time but of course it was the JKD Concepts crowd.  All such schools in Missouri have closed down altogether (as far as I know). In essence, with “The Tao Of Jeet Kune Do” in our hands, common sense, and insights from other Lee students other then the professed “elders” of JKD, we felt we had a grasp on what JKD as Lee taught the art really was.   By no means did we have all the answers though.   We never may.

Bruce Lee Review: What’s your background in martial arts training?

Paul Bax: I began training in Tae Kwon Do in 1982 and stuck with it until I was tired of doing katas’ in a basketball court. I did enjoy the sparring though. After that I pretty much did my own thing until I heard rave reviews about an Okinawa-Te instructor so I began training with him in 1986. The school was sort of a hub for martial artist from different styles so we had a lot of different guys from different arts stopping in and that is where I met my friend and instructor, Kym Huie. Kym had fought full contact and was a bouncer most of his life so he had a wonderful grasp on what worked in the street and he always was learning from whatever source that he could. He was a fan of the concepts approach and quite frankly, that is all there really was from what I remember back then until certain guys started coming out in magazines with the underground term, ‘Original Jeet Kune Do’. But, he and I had both read The Tao Of Jeet Kune Do so we had a grasp on what Lee was into while alive but were somewhat confused as to what people were proposing JKD was, i.e. JKD Concepts.

Bruce Lee Review: You mentioned the Tao of Jeet Kune Do there, a misnomer in itself, surely? In my time as a fan, this book has been derided for being less than representative of what Bruce Lee was doing, and having been published posthumously, fell foul of the fact that it’s ‘author’ was deceased. Having finite experience in martial arts I was able to appreciate elements of the book but I didn’t get a broader sense of its direction and it really came across as a hodgepodge of private notes that might never have been published in this format had Bruce Lee lived, even attracting litigious attention in some quarters for misattribution of quotes and diagrams that Bruce Lee found interest in. How can a ‘way’ be applied to a man’s vision that supposedly has ‘no way’?

Paul Bax:  Ah, there’s that double-edged sword of JKD rearing its ugly head again: “way of no way”; “circle of no circumference”; “limitation without limitation”.   I believe Bruce Lee was the ultimate salesman for a product that he really never intended to fully sell…at least as a martial art.  Lee once told Taky Kimura that he travelled all the way across town to drink root beer because the one particular store served the drink in a frosty mug.  Sometimes I feel that Lee was constantly trying to give his personal martial art that “frosty mug” that other arts lacked or appeared to lack.  Bruce Lee was to JKD what David Lee Roth was to Van Halen.  He was the salesman; the star that made JKD shine.   After he died we were left with a lot of humble students with no real leadership skills.  Forgive me, I am babbling.  How can a “way” be applied to a man’s vision that supposedly has no “way”?   I believe that there is an art to JKD but that art is based upon a lot of scientific principles that coincide with the structure of the human body and how best to make that body perform.  Lee preferred certain ways to do things based on what he felt was the simplest yet effective way to them.  Remember, Lee also called his art, “Scientific Street-Fighting.”  Of course Lee’s preferred method may not always work for the average individual.  However, if someone trained as hard as Lee and studied some of the principles behind what he professed, one surely would improve one’s self as opposed to simply venturing out to become a fighter without prior knowledge of what Lee had studied and professed. I am not claiming to have a higher knowledge of how exactly JKD should work within one’s body to create a superior way of fighting.  I am merely expressing an opinion based on my own research and from my observations of what Bruce Lee has said in interviews and wrote in his notes.

Bruce Lee Review: Is your new book a higher profile, updated edition of your first book?

Paul Bax: Yes, the new book has many new interviews with Lee’s students that include, James DeMile, Pat Strong, Steve Golden, Leo Fong, Richard Bustillo, Joe Lewis, Gary Dill (student of James Lee) and Bob Bremer.

Bruce Lee Review: How does it differ, what was the catalyst that made you want to interview so many of Bruce Lee’s students?

Paul Bax: Well, first of all I feel my interviewing skills are much better then they were before. I have matured a lot in my questions and insights and I basically am asking more intelligent questions then I used to. Years ago, there was a certain set of myths that I wanted debunked and I went in that direction. All of the interviews before were mainly done over the phone. Now with e-mail, I can be much more thorough and bounce questions off of their answers which has produced some huge interviews. The newer ones are much more well-rounded and in my opinion, my best work ever. In particular, the Joe Lewis interview really got inside his head and revealed a lot of things that I feel a lot of people wanted to know about. And then there are interviews with people whom you just don’t hear enough about like Leo Fong and Bob Bremer. What makes me want to interview so many of Lee’s students is the fact that like most fans, I am always looking for that story that we have never heard before and want other fans and practitioners to share in the new insights.

Bruce Lee Review: How did you come to write for the Bruce Lee’s estate’s Jun Fan Jeet Kune Do Nucleus magazine, and how is your relationship with the estate these days?

Paul Bax: That is all sort of fuzzy but it was mostly from my friendship with John Little. John was my way in. He would call me from time to time and ask me to do an interview with so and so or write an article on a topic he wanted something on and I stepped in and did it. My relationship with the Estate is somewhat on a hiatus because we have basically lost touch. Linda used to send me Xmas cards every year (coming to an ebay auction near you) and then they just sort of dropped off. When the Nucleus was crumbling I was led to believe that it was out of greed but now that the smoke has cleared, I am not so sure. They may only have had the best intentions of Lee in mind. I am open to discussion if they are looking to try and revive the popularity of Bruce and would consider me to be a part of the ‘resurrection’.

Bruce Lee Review: Do you think that the post-Bruce Lee interpretation of Jeet Kune Do has made it the very antithesis of what he intended: liberation?

Paul Bax: The confusing part of all this is the words that Bruce Lee left behind himself. In one sentence he talks about liberation but then you have letters to former students about not combining ‘X’ (JKD) with ‘Y’ (insert art of choice but in this case, Kenpo) so you have to wonder what direction Lee was really going in. The bottom-line is the fact that Lee would probably take from any art that he felt offered something useful but in reality, how much is really left after so many thousands of years of creating moves? That’s why he talked about not having new styles, etc. As long as the body has the same four limbs as it normally has, then the emphasis shoots back towards improving the body and mechanics of how to make the moves more effective. Simplicity was always his goal. I feel in a lot of ways Bruce Lee was a proud man. He wanted to create something that would just totally devour other arts but not everyone has the dedication that he had to build the fighting machine that he was, not to mention the fact that Lee had no intention of ever letting any one he trained catch up to his level so how much was he really willing to give out?

Bruce Lee Review: Let’s talk about the confusion surrounding Jeet Kune Do; are you able to clarify what this is and where this confusion comes from? I hear this and that about ‘original’ JKD, JKD Concepts and more recently, Jun Fan Gung Fu, what does all this mean for martial arts practitioners and also for non-combatants alike, trying to get a grip on what Bruce Lee’s art is about?

Paul Bax: I think the confusion comes from the different perspectives from the various students that Bruce Lee taught over the years.  While they all may have gotten a piece of the puzzle, often these particular students feel that their piece is better then anyone else’s.

Originally, people who followed JKD had only one route to follow and that was the path of Dan Inosanto.  This particular path involved studying whatever art Danny was interested in at the time.  Even his top student, Chris Kent once commented in Inside Karate, “Dan has shifted almost totally in the direction of Southeast Asian martial arts- Muay Thai, Silat, Kali”.  Kent went on to say, “What I see happening now is a trend where, when the students see that Dan happens to be in love with a particular art and a given point in time, they go, ‘Oh wow!  That’s for me!  That’s all I want to do is practice this one art!’ That’s okay, but that’s not Jeet Kune Do.”  So there you have a guy that was in Dan’s backyard from the early 70’s saying what I have been since 1993.  The public sees what Dan Inosanto is doing and automatically thinks that is what Bruce Lee did or that is the path to Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do.  I believe that is the path to Jeet Kune Do Concepts, but not the true art of Jeet Kune Do as Lee passed it on to private students such as Ted Wong and Herb Jackson before his death.  Mr. Kent also clarified the reason for the confusion by stating, “In the beginning, when we were training, we were learning Jeet Kune Do.  Not Jun Fan, not Jeet Kune Do concepts, (but) Jeet Kune Do.  This is the way it was when I trained in the backyard and later at the Torrence School.  Jun Fan Gung Fu is actually the forerunner of Jeet Kune Do.  However, there was an unwritten code that Bruce’s art was not to be prostituted.  So when we started teaching, we used the term, “Jun Fan” to avoid capitalizing on the Jeet Kune Do name.  Our certificates all say “Jun Fan” on them.”  And then you have Tim Tackett admitting that before the first JKD seminar ever conducted, that Dan Inosanto told both he and Larry Hartsell that the two of them never made any promises to Bruce Lee about teaching JKD but he (Danny) did, therefore he was not going to teach JKD but they could.  That is when Danny started slicing up JKD into pieces that were not always there.  For instance, Dan decided that Larry Hartsell should take the route of teaching grappling as a separate component of JKD and in reality, Bruce Lee himself did not teach hardly any grappling to his students.  While Lee may have had a lot of respect for different grappling arts, many feel that due to his size and weight that the ground was the last place that he wanted to be.  While I am sure he was quite competent on the ground, Lee was a striker and could deliver a knockout blow with any of his hands or feet.  And then, Danny suggested that Tim Tackett teach trapping at the seminar.  According to Ted Wong and several others, trapping and chi sao was not the focus that it once was in Lee’s art.  Even Taky Kimura once said that Lee called him to say, “Chi sao is out”.  Of course the question is: what does one have to lose in learning the earlier principles of Lee’s development.  And then the question is, do you reinvent the wheel so you know the process the founders went through or do you take the wheel as it was before its final innovation and go from there. And that of course, is a matter of opinion…and where a lot of the controversy starts
To further cause confusion, we have had a new twist on the whole JKD scene with the entry of Pat Strong.  Strong has reintroduced the Wing Chun principles that many feel do not fit into the boxing/fencing structure of made up JKD at the time of his death.  Other second generation guys like Lamar Davis II, also are big on the earlier teachings of Bruce Lee so there is quite a movement to trace all of Lee’s ways of training through out his short but innovative career as a martial artist.

As far as what it means to anyone involved in JKD, they just have to decide what path they want to take and respect the paths that they choose not to take.  In the end, the individual will decide what works and what will not work.Bruce Lee Review: Your discussion forum is arguably the most proactive, intelligent and thought-provoking in the Bruce Lee ‘scene’, yet remains strangely detached from the conventional fan base driven by footage, photos and product. Why do you feel this is?Paul Bax: That’s a good question. I think a lot of guys are secretly fans but too often the label of ‘groupie’ is bestowed upon someone simply because they enjoy collecting the various items for sale out there. Personally, I know I cannot take the items with me so I am trying to simplify my life and not add anything more to what I already have but collecting can be a rewarding experience and eventually a profitable one if the market is right. I personally know of students of Lee’s students who are avid collectors but keep it to themselves. Besides, I have added a link back to Bruce Lee Review to make up for our lack of emphasis in that area!Bruce Lee Review: You appear to be enamoured by the socio-political angle of Jeet Kune Do and mixed martial arts, is this an extension to your training or your primary interest and why?Paul Bax: It all goes back to my roots in JKD. When I first started reading about the art I worked in a copy-center. I had the privelage of copying what I wanted, when I wanted. My friends had been collecting magazines since the early seventies so I was able to see what was being said about JKD from the beginning. In the mid-eighties I started to see a shift in what was originally being stated and that got my mind going and before you know it I was interviewing Lee’s students and hearing different sides of the coin. Enter Rush Limbaugh. I was always a fan of the talk show host and his savvy for dissecting what was really going on behind the scenes and that sort of rolled over to the JKD world. Just as Bill Clinton has gotten away with a lot of lies over the years, several JKD people have also gotten away with a lot of half-truths and falsehoods. I set my course to be the “truth meter” in JKD. I was actually retired from the political aspects at one point…but just when you think your out …they suck you back in! My next book, The Death of Jeet Kune Do: In Memory of a Once Fluid Martial Art should cover nearly every JKD flame war. Something tells me I will have no friends once that book comes out. Skip Ellsworth in the Philippines, if you are reading this – leave the light on for me. And make sure she is 18 and at least 5’4. I will break the news to the wife before I leave: “Honey, everyone wants me dead and it’s in your best interest that I leave so you are not in danger. No, I am not going to live with Skip. Bye. Oh, I almost forgot my book, ‘How to live in the Philippines for under $2.00 a day’.

Bruce Lee Review: While we’re courting controversy, you seem to have a thing about Bruce Lee’s senior instructor; what are your thoughts on Dan Inosanto? Hasn’t he taken what Bruce Lee taught him and ‘added what is uniquely his own’, the very essence of Jeet Kune Do in itself?

Paul Bax:  That is true.  Dan Inosanto has added a lot over the years.  My main concern with Mr. Inosanto is his lack of control over his students and how they “ran away” with JKD in the 80’s and professed a lot of things that he knows are untrue.  Here is a man who claims to be his sole heir yet he tells his students that while he made a promise not to promote Jeet Kune Do that they did not make the same promise therefore they are not governed by the same promise.  Wow, that’s the guy who I want to entrust my art to!  This is the same Dan Inosanto who once wrote, “One cannot learn the principle roots of Jeet Kune do through the accumulation of many different styles for that would be like a singer trying to improve his voice by accumulating many songs. Rather it is by understanding the roots of the problem (page 145 of his book quoted from 1969)”.  So what changed in the mind of Dan Inosanto when he made that statement?  Did he just evolve in his thinking or was he looking for a way to give JKD a broader range of techniques and philosophies to teach?  In one of Bruce Lee’s last conversations with Dan Lee, Bruce made the comment that something was bugging Danny.  You have to wonder exactly what was bugging him.  Simplicity is indeed, a hard principle to convey.

Bruce Lee Review: It’s documented that Bruce Lee closed his schools, all but ceased teaching and told his instructors to stop what they were doing towards the end of his life. Do you think that he ultimately regretted labelling his art? What is it that JKD practitioners are actually teaching and learning, as each original student was moulded in a way that would better enable them to express themselves through martial art? Are they passing on their personal expression and therefore diluting Bruce Lee’s tailoring of his art to their attributes? As Bruce Lee’s character states in Longstreet, “… without system, without method, what’s to teach?”.

Paul Bax:  Jesus Christ…I feel like I am on “JKD Hardball”.  All good questions and I am sure there are perfectly great answers but in the meantime you will have to settle for my mine.  True, Lee closed all his schools but he also told his instructors to take a few dedicated students to the backyard and continue training them.  It has been documented that Lee did regret labelling his martial art but he never planned to die and if he hadn’t died who knows how the art could have further been explained and discussed BY him rather then others who may not have totally grasped what he was saying.  As Lee said, “Man is more important then any martial art” or something to that effect.  The problem is, how much of that was Lee just trying to copy Krishnamurti and making his art mirror a philosophy rather then what it really was…a martial arts system?  I have had my disagreements with James Bishop but his book, Dynamic Becoming really explores where Lee took his philosophy from and applied to his art to make that “frosty mug” that so many arts clamour for.  My advice to JKD practitioners: learn Wing Chun.  See the roots of JKD.  Explore boxing and fencing to see the principles that they offer.  Learn some basic kicks with no frills.  Find an instructor who was under Lee towards the end of his evolution and ask him to train you just as Bruce Lee trained him.  Will you find JKD this way?  I don’t know.  But in my opinion, this is the route to take if you have the means to do so.  Lee did teach his student in the show Long Street.  We could also ask, “Without system, without method, what’s to practice?” yet practice is something Lee did do to the end of his life.

Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions.

Thanks for opportunity and the chance to promote my book.  Disciples of the Dragon is truly unique in that its one of the few places where you can find so many of Lee’s students in one place.  To order simply go and make a payment of $25.00 ($5.00 shipping in the USA/$10.00 international) to my paypal account: for “goods”.  Leave me a note of where you found out about the book.  As far as the next project, I have started to write the book but it will be a monstrous undertaking.  There is just so much behind the scene material that it could take over a year if I want to do it right.  Be patient…it will be worth the wait.