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Dai Liang, aka A Bu: Beijing Prodigy

Karl Ackermann By

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You rarely find young people playing jazz in China. —Dai Liang aka A Bu
In 1950, in the wake of World War II and the early years of the Cold War, the Chinese Communist Party under Mao Zedong founded the Central Conservatory of Music as a consolidation of several musical institutions. Located in Beijing, the school resides on the former site of the seventeenth century residence of one Prince Yixuan. The campus has developed into a global institution offering advanced degrees in a setting that mixes original building from the Qing Dynasty with state-of-the-art music facilities and dormitories. The school was once the domain of the elite of the CCP and, even among that segment of society, only the highest academic tier (and the well-connected) gained admittance. It now offers degrees in fifteen disciples, houses seven institutions of research and publishing and features honorary professors such as Isaac Stern, Itzak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma and Jessye Norman. Among the conservatory's notable alumni is the young classical and jazz pianist/composer, Dai Liang, aka, A Bu. He entered the conservatory at the age of nine and though still a teenager, his poise and talent are that of an experienced veteran.

Born and raised in a small neighborhood in the eastern part of Beijing, pianist Dai Liang had an unusually early exposure to jazz given its relative scarcity in his native China. Though his father was a fan of jazz music, there was limited availability of recordings and an even more limited opportunity to hear jazz music being performed live. Still, Dai became accustomed to hearing his father's restricted collection from a very early age.

A note about naming conventions in China and about Dai's name(s) in particular: A Chinese name is written with the surname first, followed by the given name so the pianist's family name is "Dai" and his given name "Liang," typical of a Chinese tradition is a two-syllable reference to an aspirational characteristic or quality. In this case, the given name is roughly translated as "Good" or "Fine" and if applied to Dai's musical talent, it is a substantial understatement. Then there is Dai's alter ego, A Bu. We sat down to lunch in Manhattan this past September, a few blocks from where he currently studies at Julliard. One of my first questions regarded his use of a performing name that sounds neither Chinese nor metaphorical. The story behind the name turns out to be strictly familial as it is simply a nickname that his father had given him because of a similar sound that Dai would make as a young child. That designation could not have come long before Dai first sat down at the keyboard.

"I began to play the piano [at] age four. Until age nine, I had only played classical music. However, my father is a music fan. Not only in classical, but my father also encouraged me to listen more to different music such as jazz, Blues, Rock, etc. At age nine, I entered the Central Conservatory of Music to continue my classical piano education. At the same time, my father introduced me to the famous Chinese jazz pianist Mr. Golden Buddua. I had a great time with him, and he started to teach me things about jazz..." Dai's reference to "Mr. Golden Buddha" denotes China's most respected jazz pianist, Kong Hongwei, and his Golden Buddha Jazz Orchestra. A favorite of the Chinese Ministry of Culture, his group has played festivals throughout China and Eastern Europe using a combination of ancient Chinese and Western musical instruments. The music of the Golden Buddha Jazz Orchestra itself bears only elemental resemblances to Western jazz while incorporating funk, pop, regional folk and dance in a global mélange of influences. As Dai points out, ..."I've heard my Chinese jazz teacher's band playing with Chinese flute and Zhongruan (a traditional Chinese folk instrument)."

Dai's own connection with Western jazz is much more direct, whether in his covers or original compositions. While he credits Kong Hongwei as a powerful musical influence, Dai also states, "In the way I see it, Michel Petrucciani and Michel Camilo truly inspired my love to jazz." He was able to hone his performance skills at the East Shore Jazz Café, a top-tier jazz venue in Beijing, known for bringing in some major talent from Europe and the U.S. Of playing that club, he says, "Definitely, the East Shore Jazz Café is significant to the Chinese jazz industry. I feel very honored that I have been invited to perform with my band and jam with local musicians there. Playing in the East Shore Jazz Café has always been a great and comfortable time for me. Also, I still remember the experience playing with the great American jazz saxophonist Antonio Hart. We played in the afternoon after his rehearsal, and he tried to let me get the real feel of jazz. After that hour, we successfully built our relation and became each other's good friend. It was such an incredible moment to me."

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