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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 ( (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!

Hu Danfeng started playing trumpet at age 10 and showed early promise; he was admitted to the high school attached to the Shanghai Conservatory in 1993. He demonstrated an early appreciation for jazz, forming his first jazz band in 1997. After enrolling in the Shanghai Conservatory in 1999, he began frequenting well-known local jazz bars in Shanghai, such as the Full House, Blues & Jazz, and Cotton Club, and rapidly gained recognition as a jazz trumpeter and flugelhornist. He is currently enrolled in the Master's Program at the Shanghai Conservatory, majoring in classical trumpet studies, while performing nightly at the Hilton Shanghai.

Yuko Arai is of Japanese ancestry and is married to a Frenchman. She started classical piano lessons at age three, performing publicly for the first time when she was four years old. She was introduced to jazz after moving to San Diego, and it was "love at first hearing." She subsequently moved to Paris where she studied jazz at Conservatoire de Paris and at the Bill Evans Piano Academy, performing publicly with her own jazz trio (trumpet, bass and piano) at various bars, clubs and showboats in Paris. A "resident of the world" who has continued studying with professional jazz musicians wherever she is located, she then moved to Bangkok, Thailand, playing in bars, clubs, restaurants and hotels for three years with a trio made up of alto saxophone, bass and piano. Currently in Shanghai, she forms the musical hub around which this superlative quintet revolves.

Bassist Jin Yongjun was born in 1969 and started studying violin at the age of six. In 1981, he enrolled in Yan Bian Music Academy to begin his formal musical education, majoring in cello. After graduation in 1990, he became a member of Ji Lin Art Group. To further his career, he moved to Shanghai in 1996 and began performing in bars, clubs and restaurants as a string bassist. In addition to jazz, he has become proficient in playing a wide variety of different types of music.

Drummer Jeff Sulima, who harks from Vancouver, British Columbia, started piano lessons at the age of eight. He received a set of drums for his eleventh birthday, playing his first gig with a Country/Christian band at a bar, long before he was of legal drinking age! He began drum lessons at age 15, enrolling two years later at the Mount Royal College Conservatory of Music in Calgary, Alberta, majoring in jazz studies. Following receipt of his Diploma in Music, he was admitted to Capilano College in North Vancouver, where he received a Bachelor's of Music. He gigged widely in Vancouver during his seven years there, playing with the Bruno Hubert Trio for three years (Hubert plays piano in Brad Turner's Quartet/Quintet). In addition, Sulima organized a band called "JazzMatik" (he is asthmatic) which appeared in the Vancouver Jazz Fest in 2002. He has been in Shanghai a relatively short time, playing at the new jazz club, "Club JZ," and providing a foundation for the quintet at the Hilton nightly.

So, in China, as in most of the rest of the world, jazz is alive and well. Despite the contrasts of East and West, rich and poor, ancient and new, and young and old, jazz is a medium that is ideal for bridging people, ideologies and musical systems. 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.


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