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Can Jazz Survive COVID-19? China Has Tested the Waters

Jiaowei Hu By

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In the coming weeks, Frank Sinatra's line "I wanna wake up in a city that doesn't sleep" from "New York, New York" may not strike a chord. On March 17, the epicenter of jazz ground to a halt.

By the decree of governmental enforcement, all jazz venues in New York City announced closures in rapid succession. Being the last to surrender, Blue Note New York's closure has not only marked a complete suspension of the Mecca of Jazz, it has also closed the two remaining Blue Note's clubs in China.

Can jazz survive in the same way when art strides confidently into the virtual world? China "the forerunner" is still waging the struggle.

Back in January, China's suspension of public gatherings got in the way of Shanghai's establishing itself as the La La Land of Asia. Shanghai is the home to three JZ clubs and JZ Festival—one of the largest jazz festivals in Asia. Joined recently by Blue Note and Jazz at Lincoln Center, the local jazz scene had been driving down a superhighway until the outbreak slammed on the brakes.

In the past month, Danny Bensusan's troop has been slaving for their Chinese colleagues from Beijing and Shanghai, striving to launch the only transnational live jazz streaming project "Blue Note L!ve" in China in mid-March, one week before the earth-shattering Broadway shutdown.

In the end, more than half of the concerts were cut, leaving only three to broadcast. However ephemeral the project, it was still viewed by more than fifty-five thousand people across the country. There were up to two thousand viewers simultaneously online, which was the audience equivalent of ten Blue Notes New York. Blue Note China might once have been chuckling, daydreaming about a one-year recovery.

Now that the global chain is cut off, the project slogan "Straight to New York Live" has become the pie in the sky overnight.

While the attempt was serious, only one-third of the scheduled concerts were delivered. A professional, technical broadcast team was hired in New York. The online project began on March 13, with a performance by Italian jazz vocalist Chiara Civello. She would have made a splash at the two Blue Note Chinese clubs one month ago. With the joint efforts of her own filming crew, Civello elegantly sat in front of the camera, sang while playing on guitar, piano and percussion, chatted with her remote audience, and received hundreds of thank you comments in a seaside glass villa in Brazil.

The Chinese team has also set up a stall in the "B Music in the Air Festival" on Bilibili, one of the biggest video streaming websites in the country. Streaming concerts from Blue Note Milano's video archive has attracted 375 thousand viewers so far. With the efficient real-time commentary subtitles system, hundreds of spectators joined the online chat while watching the shows. The "quiet policy" concert etiquette might be broken, but the online auditorium was unprecedentedly active.

Though born under a shining constellation, Jazz at Lincoln Center Shanghai has been less fortunate. Operating as the only overseas branch of Jazz at Lincoln Center (New York), the Shanghai venue's slim chance of international aid grew fat, after Lincoln Center had been one of the first to shut down.

A self-anointed "Chinese Jazz Power," JZ Music strategized a package of online campaigns. They started showcasing their sixteen-year-old deep pockets in February, with a variety of programs including a footage series every night, radio broadcasts five days a week, and daily open courses by over a dozen acclaimed local musicians.

The nonstop carnival is in the cloud. A cross-platform media matrix has been built up on services offered by Himalaya, Bilibili, Weibo, Yizhibo, Taobao and Xiami. "It feels like rushing from one app to another, reminding me of those club crawls that we used to join offline!" comments a participant.

In about one month, JZ Music has produced 110 streaming episodes for over 160 hours; the figure is still on the rise. "Offline, our shows are offered nearly 365 days a year; Online, we will run these programs the same way," says Su Yan, the Director of Publicity.

Much attention has been drawn to the radio program, hosted by JZ founder Ren Yuqing. "There is no jazz radio in mainland China. While people are forced to stay home, I broke down from the uphill work, too. So I launched this program myself, to bring people online together and share music with each other."

The project makes a reputation instead of profit. "Jazz in China still remains a niche market, and the job entails a lot of work. But it's worth doing and I enjoy the process. I even hope to continue the project after the pandemic," adds Ren.

As well as cultivating a stable follower base, the programs have also brought JZ a considerable amount of virtual gifts from viewers, which could be cashed out later .

But the real reward came as a surprise. Weeks of open courses have triggered a cascade of growth in its education business. Within one week, more than seven hundred students have registered for the affiliated JZ School's upcoming spring semester online courses, over twenty times that of the offline enrollment.

However, the online achievements cannot offset the offline conundrum. For JZ's Spring Jazz Festival in May, time is running out. Celebrated as one of the International Jazz Day's global events, the festival is likely to be another victim of Covid-19. "Some musicians that we had booked have already exited out. We are still good with the venue. As for the rest, we resigned ourselves to fate," confides Ren.

A few days later, as many countries desperately continued to tighten their measures, JZ and all booked foreign musicians had to finally let each other go. This year, the main stage may shine a light on local musicians.

Other global events of International Jazz Day are in the same boat, in view of the accelerated worldwide spread of Covid-19 . Cape Town, selected as the Global Host City for 2020, might trace the roots "back home" and holds echoes of the theme "Tracing the Roots and Routes of African Jazz."

Co-organizers of the flagship festival announced its postponement on March 13, through their website and twitter "Cape Town Jazz Fest" (@CTJazzFest). However, according to the Jazz Day's official website, there is no sign that the enormous variety of global celebration events would be canceled. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has been slow to act when it comes to synchronization; they have yet to release the information in a more formal way. Instead, "International Jazz Day" (@IntlJazzDay) posted its last tweet on March 16 -a quotation from Quincy Jones on the occasion of the First International Jazz Day, in 2012: "Jazz has the power to make men forget their differences and come together...Jazz is the personification of transforming overwhelmingly negative circumstances into freedom, friendship, hope, and dignity." Unfortunately, considering the cross-continent lockdown, the freedom may not be so easy to transform into.

Show business is not the only affected sector in the jazz scene. Education has also joined the club and it is snowballing into a global issue.

China's peak of the epidemic occurred during winter breaks. As a result, the Ministry of Education announced at the end of January that the 2020 spring semester for schools would be postponed.

While education has been forced to go online, the twenty-first century's internet-based companies are still miles off catching up with the rhythm. Exterior platforms and software used by most Chinese music conservatories and departments include speciality platforms like MOOC, Chaoxing (Super Star), Zhihuishu (Wisdom Tree), as well as communication applications like WeChat and QQ. They seem well-prepared.

Compared with general majors, college teaching in practice-based majors, like music, requires small-class tuition and even one-to-one demonstration. And now, it has been technically challenged as well.

In terms of jazz studies, the pros and cons of online education are clear. Students who take a specific curriculum and are usually trained through close mentorship, have been no doubt pulled away from teachers and fellow students. The move to remote teaching and learning methods has wiped out almost every chance of musical interactivity and band practices.

"Due to the time lag, it's difficult to accompany my students' playing and inspire them, or to play as an ensemble. They can either hardly see my playing fingers via video call," discloses Xiao Jun, who is currently teaching jazz guitar at Nanjing University of the Arts. "Eventually, the teacher has to talk and demonstrate more than usual, while receiving feedback from your students much less than usual."

Aware of the difficulties of teaching arts online, according to Xiao, the school principals are very concerned about the quality of online courses and have carried out plenty of spot checks.

The annoyance caused by time delay and sound quality is conceivable. "I don't teach ensembles, but I do wonder how other teachers cope," sympathizes Zhang Xiongguan, a jazz guitar tutor at Shanghai Conservatory of Music. "I give courses like Harmony, Arrangement and Composition, which are structured more as lectures. The online method does the job."

Some instrumentalists might feel differently. For percussionists, online education is thorny. "Look, the lag is inevitable," sighs Rong Chenchu, who teaches Improvisation and Theory at Shanghai Normal University. "We had to give up the ensemble course. Abandoned courses will not be redone afterwards."

The catastrophe happens, when their sensitive ears find that the low-and high-frequency sounds have been butchered in video calls. "Now, we focus more on Theory and Composition. Not all bad," Rong manages to encourage her students to create music online, with musical instruments as well as handy objects. "During the quarantine, I would especially like them to explore the possibilities of sounds."

Meanwhile, online jazz courses taught as electives or part of the core curriculum, have been increasingly popular with students from other units.

NYU Shanghai has set up a comprehensive digital teaching toolkit. "It took the school a few weeks to get the online tools ready, make adjustments to courses, and sort out the many logistical challenges. Many of us are holding class meetings synchronously through Zoom. I also prepare interactive multimedia presentations for my students using VoiceThread, and record upload short videos on each slide," says Dr. Murray James Morrison, Clinical Assistant Professor of Arts. He joined NYU Shanghai in September 2019 and started the first jazz courses on campus.

Many of his classes are at full enrollment and have long waitlists. "Though jazz and popular music are new at NYU Shanghai, there is a lot of student interest in our classes." Dr. James Morrison is currently teaching "Jazz Ensemble," "Songwriting" and "20th-Century Music and It's Meanings" to twenty-four NYU students online. "We are making the best of an unfortunate situation. The fact that we are teaching music helps. Most students really enjoy taking our classes. It has gone much better than I expected."

As the college shutdown storm has turned into a global tornado, an increasing number of schools in the United States have moved to remote instruction from March 11, including New York University, New England Conservatory of Music, Purchase College, The New School, Berklee College of Music.

The quarantine has continued to hit art schools and departments in particular. While most American schools are finding their ways to remote education, some European counterparts are on the edge of raising the white flag.

Lately, University of Music Würzburg, Royal Academy of Art, The Hague and most other art schools have all recommended communications via email. Few have so far announced any up-to-date online class program.

Royal Conservatory of Brussels' official website: "Collective and theoretical courses are given remotely with various tools (Canvas, e-mail, skype, ppt and notes, recorded material, ...)." Meanwhile, they are aware of the difficulties of teaching individual instrument courses, and expect their teachers "to encourage the study." According to a jazz student, "the teacher said it was a great time to reflect, meditate, read a book, play some music and relax. We were told to use our time creatively." As to the lectures, the teachers simply dropped students the courseware folder.

On March 20, Berlin University of the Arts posted a website notification and listed a few "tools for online learning, teaching and communication," after having googled for existing online open courses, platforms, YouTube tutorials and working tips. They have left the decisions to teachers and students.

Something is better than nothing, though at best online teaching only scratches the surface. "Most of us would prefer to meet face-to-face," says Dr. James Morrison.

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