(Note: Links to 12 Mongolian jazz MP3s, plus some examples of traditional music, are found throughout the story. A complete list of the links is also at the end of this article.)
Third-world wages may cause widespread misery and injustice, but they certainly allow kick-ass Christmas parties.
The sidewalks on this sub-zero night are full of drunks, phone vendors at small tables selling calls for a few tugriks and throngs of commoners buying staples from stands where plastic sheeting offers surprisingly effective protection against the cold. But a block away in the city's showpiece hotel, well-to-do mining company employees at a lavish ballroom banquet are getting a full night of live concerts by the country's most talented musicians.
"It doesn't cost a lot here to get the best and we want to reward our employees for a good year, so we're able to give them a sort of a 'Best Of Mongolia 2005' evening," said an upper-level executive with the company.
Passing judgment on those drinking inside or outside is unfair ignorance, which is why those kind enough to let me crash the company's fancy-dress party are unnamed. They accepted a long-haired, unkempt stranger with a suspicious tale about traveling halfway around the world to see if there's jazz in Mongolia at a time of year when many hadn't seen a tourist for months.
Performances vary widely in talent, with traditional musicians and dancers being more impressive than a mostly second-rate string of bands playing imported pop and rock. For me, the main lure is the Black And White Band, Mongolia's first post-transitional jazz group.
They get going after a couple of hours, opening with an up-tempo pop-fusion led by a middle-age man whose tenor saxophone resembles smooth's Richard Elliot in phrasing and tone. A rhythm section dominated by synth imprints keeps a steady beat with no pronounced solos. Next is a contemporary waltz featuring a younger woman playing an over-processed violin, then a handful of standards with vocalists that are often strong, but misguided, further distorting an audio mix that's muddled and too heavy on volume.
Faint praise, perhaps, and certainly an argument in favor of calling this frigid trip a lunatic's errand. Then again, these are hardly ideal circumstances: a haphazard jam with performers from other bands, mediocre sound equipment, and a crowd whose focus is mostly mingling and dining.
"They are just like the ones I did in the U.K.being ignored on stage, being less popular than the disco and getting paid more than regular gigs," wrote Steve Tromans, a U.K. pianist leading a year-long jazz awareness/education program in Mongolia, reflecting on his performances at similar functions this year.
It's a lot to overcome in a country where inherent struggles are already plentiful.
Jazz reportedly was brought to Mongolia by an American car salesman who enjoyed playing it, with big band flourishing during the middle of the 20th century. But the Cold War and Soviet rule all but destroyed the foundation, and rebuilding is proving slow.
"Although Mongolian musicians have been playing music in a jazz style since around 1960, the scene is very much in its infancy," Tromans noted in an e-mail interview. "There has, however, been something of a 'jazz explosion' in recent years, mainly as a result of greater access to Western culture since the fall of socialism in the country in 1991.
"The socialist Mongolian music education system (though impressive in its classical and traditional training) had no room for pop, jazz or other 'capitalist' styles of music-making. This meant a distinct lack of drummers, electric guitarists, bass players and saxophonists."
There are no improvising saxophone, trumpet or trombone players to the best of my knowledge. There are certainly a fair amount of brass players, just not ones who have any decent level of improvisation skills."
There are almost no in-country recordings and the number of truly accomplished jazz musicians might still fit comfortably on a nightclub stage. But the scene has grown tremendously just during the year since my visit. Two new clubs hosting regular jazz gigs and a jazz academy opened, and the second Giant Steppes International Jazz Festival last October doubled the inaugural event's attendance with 1,500 people listening to three days of concerts.
"I look for Giant Steppes to be one of the best jazz festivals in the world in next 10 years," wrote Bob Bellows, a pianist living in Florida and China who is among those credited for bringing modern-era jazz to Mongolia, in an e-mail. "Why? Because of the mixture of instruments that can be used from the countryside and added, and then Mongolia will have a distinctive jazz sound all its own."
Sowing The Seeds