Jazz in Shanghai, China: A Study in Contrasts

J. Robert Bragonier By

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Each new culture that is introduced to jazz not only assimilates jazz into its life and experience, but also leavens jazz with its different rhythms, tonalities and perspectives. And jazz is the richer for it.
China in 2004 is a land of contrasts: rural vs. urban; ancient vs. ultra-modern; flowering fruit trees and resplendent spring flowers vs. omnipresent, eye-burning smog; profound poverty vs. promise and plenty. The contrast between East and West is particularly evident in musical traditions. The Chinese have been using music in court and religious ceremonies for more than 2,000 years. Traditional music uses the two-string erhu ; seven-string qin ; lute-like pipa ; the sheng (a mouth organ made of seven bamboo pipes); flutes, called the xiao and di ; and percussion, to create music on a basic five-note scale (F, G, A, C, and D); the music has no harmony. The Western world, on the other hand, uses a variety of very different instruments (keyboards, strings, winds, brass, and percussion) to create harmonic music on an eight-note scale. With the creation of a global environment, nearly all countries have experienced the melodies, harmonies and rhythm of American jazz, and China is no exception. Nonetheless, for us, listening to jazz music in Shanghai was an experience in contrasts, as well.

We had been told about the jazz band at the Peace Hotel on the Bund, and we decided that we must give it a listen. In the Peace Hotel's Jazz Bar, which Newsweek in 1996 reportedly called "the world's best bar," the Old Jazz Band has entertained a multitude of guests from around the world since it was founded in 1980. The band is composed of six veteran musicians whose average age is above 70, playing alto and tenor saxophones, trumpet, piano, bass, and drums.
The band played with enthusiasm, the place was packed, and the crowd clearly loved the old duffers, but I must say we were disappointed. Along with '30s and '40s Glenn Miller- and Benny Goodman-like arrangements, the musicians played such non-jazz chestnuts as "Waltzing Matilda" and "New York, New York" for visitors. Even on jazz arrangements, the band was stiffly "boom-chick"; musicians appeared not to improvise, and they did not swing.
On the other hand, we heard an excellent group in the bar at the Shanghai Hilton Hotel, a quintet comprised of female vocalist, trumpeter/flugelhornist, and rhythm section, with electric bass. Their ensemble was tight; their tune selection, sophisticated; their improvisations, thoughtful and creative; and they swung like the proverbial garden gate. Along with well-chosen numbers from the Great American Songbook, they played compositions of Thelonious Monk, Clifford Brown, Billy Strayhorn, and Tadd Dameron, among others. Although they have been together for a relatively short time, this is a group that is ready for "prime time"; they have gelled nicely and could fit in well in the Los Angeles jazz scene at any one of a number of venues.

The vocalist, the tall and willowy Zhang Le (like many Chinese, she has taken an English name, Carrie Chang), sang with a soft, slightly smoky voice, magnetic presence, impeccable intonation, and admirable interpretation. When singing, her diction and articulation are surprisingly clean and clear for someone who has not traveled to any predominantly English-speaking country. Carrie began professional vocal training in 1994 and by the time she was 18 had won first place in the Casio Singing Competition in Shanghai. She subsequently won a competition hosted by the China Central Audio Station and recorded her first song "Scarf" in 1998. She has performed on local Chinese television and has recorded 4 theme songs for well-known TV drama and comedy shows. She recorded her first jazz demo with her band in 2001 and the following year was invited by Canadian guitarist Jesse Cook to be guest artist for his Singapore tour. In 2003, in addition to cutting her second demo with students from the music conservatory in Den Haag, Netherlands, she recorded jazz versions of three old Chinese songs, which have just been released by EMI in Asia on a new album entitled Shanghai Jazz: Musical Seductions from China's Age of Decadence (http://www.shjazz.com). (In addition to Carrie, the album features Coco Zhao, Ginger Zheng, Rebecca Tu, Huang JianYi, Feng Yu Cheng, Fu Hua, Pang Fei, Ren Yu Qing, and several other JZ Club/Cotton Club players from Shanghai.) Carrie has been performing as lead singer at the Hilton Shanghai since 2000, but she anticipates a major change before long: she has been granted a scholarship at the New England Conservatory of Music and will be traveling to Boston to begin her studies in the fall!


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