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Jazz in China: Part 1

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A short interview with the club manager revealed that no western mainstream jazz names rang any bells at all.
Some of us are lucky enough to receive interesting travel assignments and hopscotch thither and yond visiting exciting places, sampling exotic foods and exploring strange realities. I've been one of those fortunate folks who, because of my many careers, get to go abroad quite often. And when I'm away I naturally investigate what's happening in Jazz and very often get to examine the ever-growing interest and whatever local talent may be around.

Last month I headed an international culture/trade mission to China. While there much time was spent learning about the vast legacy of Chinese art, music and sculpture, visiting ancient sites that westerners know very little about and exploring ways to exchange ideas, exhibitions, performances and writing between the Chinese and the west.

One of the highlights of the music component was a performance of Chinese opera and a comparison of the aesthetics of this eastern form with our European tradition is immensely interesting but, obviously, I can't get into such a discussion here. In theater, dance and instrumental music there is also much to talk about but, again, I'll save my comments for another time. What about Jazz?

First, let me explain that on this trip I visited two cities: Fuzhou, a city of about 3 million in the southeastern province of Fujan and Beijing the famous capital that bulges with between 13 and 16 million depending on who is relating the statistics. Of course there are thousands more cities in this land of 1.3 billion people but it is fair to say that the two places I visited provide a metaphoric framework for evaluating the state of the music scene.

Last year Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center jazz juggernaut appeared in China and, from all reports, the trip was successful. Other than Wynton's visit very few jazzers have been making China tours and reports of any activity are sketchy at best.

In Fuzhou there is a music club scene that is somewhat analogous to what we have in the west. Young people are out socializing at venues with a healthy neon light display and overloud speaker systems designed to draw in customers who are dazzled by the high tech sound and light show and willing to pay for high music charges and expensive drinks. There is some dancing to western rock, rap, folk and blues but no jazz can be heard even though the word is used to promote the club. I went to the West Street Music Club across from West Lake Park in downtown Fuzhou. On the Saturday evening I was there the scene was fairly quiet due to an electricity brownout, which is a fairly large problem in energy short China these days. A short interview with the club manager revealed that no western mainstream jazz names rang any bells at all. But when he was informed that I was a player and might one day bring my group to perform, he could not contain himself remonstrating that the club would be packed and people would fight to get in etc., etc. So... go figure.

Fuzhou is a gleaming city where, as in so many places in China, the office and apartment buildings are less that 25 years old and the atmosphere is that of a city on another planet. Everywhere countless industrious, inquisitive, bright and sophisticated eager-to-learn Fujans are busy helping to make their country's GNP the highest in the world and, to me, seem absolutely ready to jump at any chance to hear jazz if only some club owner would take the plunge...More next month.


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