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My First Visit to China

Gene Perla By

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It all started with Dome. That's drummer Adam Nussbaum. Decades had gone by without the opportunity to musically connect with him, but then Dave Liebman and I decided to put together a quartet called New Light. In 2014, along with saxophonist Adam Niewood, we hit three NYC area jazz clubs followed by a concert at Clarke University in 2015. In 2016 we played NYC and toured Europe, and in 2017 we headlined at the Santiago Jazz Festival and appeared at several North American festivals.

Having had the great fortune to tour with the world's greatest jazz drummer, Elvin Jones, I view other drummers by how they measure up to him. And there are many skin beaters that are a joy to be onstage with, but Dome brings a special feeling to the table. I usually describe playing with him as if I were sitting on a comfortable couch with not a care in the world. His time is solid, full, and flexible. I could be much more descriptive, but I'll leave that to another article.

Adam has been visiting China for several years and this trip was his 10th. It was his and pianist Richie Beirach's recommendations that landed me my first visit to the Middle Kingdom which began on December 16th. Adam, trumpeter Tim Hagans, and I boarded United Flight UA 86 which took off at 10:00AM. 14 hours later we landed in Shanghai. After a few hours layover we jumped on an Air China flight which got us to Shenzhen which is about 17 miles north of Hong Kong. Unfortunately, one of only two snafus of the trip occurred in Shanghai. We had to go through immigration with our checked luggage, but my bag didn't make it.

For me, there were several firsts beyond the destination. It was also my first to be supplied with a business class flight reservation. What a joy to be able to lie down flat with blankets, pajamas, pillows, and sleep mask. I couldn't get a deep sleep, but it did afford me the chance to get a reasonable rest. Another first was to play a gig with Tim Hagans. Personally, we hit it off right from the start. Although Richie and I had played together in the NYC way back and that he also appeared on the ninth production of my PM Records label featuring Pat LaBarbera and his brother Joe, it had been a span of 43 years until this meeting.

After putting in a claim for the missing bag, we stepped into the Shenzhen atmosphere which is located near the Tropic of Cancer. In other words, it was delightfully warm. We were ferried to the Marco Polo Hotel a five-star establishment and as we entered the lobby, we were met by our host Li Gaoyang. In China last names are written and said first but because of being jazzers we endearingly call him Gao (rhymes with how).



After checking in, Gao took us for a few blocks walk to have a delicious meal at the Glass Hammer Brewing Company. Richie had flown in from Germany and decided to stay in, so we didn't get to see him until the following day. In the morning I had the first of five dynamite hotel breakfasts. The offerings went on and on with three coffee machines providing multi-cappuccinos. A grand variety of meats, fish, veggies, pasta, breads, desserts, drinks, and more were available and all delicious.







Gao plays the tenor and soprano saxophones and it was a breath of fresh air for me to play with him at our rehearsal for our first gig at the Shenzhen Concert Hall's Symphony Hall, a 1,680-seat venue. He plays in-tune with authority, is lyrical leaving spaces, and the most important aspect for me is his time is right in the cut. We didn't fill the house but did respectably well. At the end of the show as we were about to take bows, five young ladies came on stage dressed in startling well-cut identical red suits each holding a huge bouquet of flowers which they gave to each one of us. What a treat! After the show, we paid another visit to the Glass Hammer.

Oh, about my missing suitcase? Just as we were leaving the hotel for the gig, it showed up. I took it along with us where I happily changed at the Concert Hall allowing me to not go on stage in my traveling sneakers and jeans.

The next day (19th) was a day off. I spent most of the time catching up on emails. As I often do, it was a bit of an impediment to not have full access to the Internet. YouTube, Facebook, and other sites were blocked. Never mind, there was plenty to keep me busy.

For the next two nights (20th & 21st) we performed at the same Shenzhen Concert Hall but in the 580 seat Theater Studio—more conducive to our type of music, some of which was loud and brash. All the players were hell-bent on squeezing every inch of force in their performances. Thing is, they know how to do it with great success. In other words, it was a great band. The audiences seem to be mesmerized by what they witnessed. By the way, we nearly sold out both shows.

What also made it a success was denoted by our collective ESP, especially between Richie, Adam, and me. At one point, the three of us simultaneously made a dead stop leaving a large breath of silence, and then continued as if it were preordained. This is an example of why I think jazz is the most fabulous music—when performers achieve collective improvisatory artistry right on the spot. Not that other music is inferior, but that very little of the world's greatest auditory communications regularly employ such on-the-spot tactics.

And again, at the end of each of both shows, five young girls, dressed in red classy uniforms came on stage to present us with huge bouquets of mixed, sweet-smelling flowers. Adam got the idea to give his bouquet to a young child of which there were many. Richie and I did the same. It was impressive to see parents bring their descendants, exposing them to our type of music. Since we approached the front of the stage many people came rushing up to greet us and take a zillion selfies. It sure made me feel good.



The afternoon before the second show Adam and I took a short walk. It was gorgeous—sunny, with minimal smog, and not overly crowded sidewalks. I wanted to buy some Christmas presents and we were told by the hotel staff to visit CocoPark and it was a sight to behold...multiple floors of a huge footprint structure that is stacked with an array of shops of all types mixed with apparently never-ending food offerings. We became exhausted attempting to soak it all in. I found exactly what I was looking for in the PurCotton shop—five beautiful pure cotton (what else?), large winter scarves.



On the sixth day of the tour with thee cars we drove to Guangzhou which took two and a half hours on smooth freeways with constantly moving-along traffic and all along the way there were buildings, many of which are high-risers. It was interesting to see that most apartments had clothes hanging on their outside balconies. There were very few billboards and the land appeared to be free of trash. We didn't see one old or junky-looking car. Guangzhou is an old city as compared to Shenzhen. It's thick with shops and crowds on the street.

Before our show in Guangzhou, Gao took us to a restaurant around the corner from our Hotel. Seven of us were directed into a private room where we were treated to a soup-to-nuts dinner of super-top-quality delectable delights.

The Guangdon Arts Theater was another 500 or so seat theater. This night we each received (two) large bouquets which I then went into the audience and gave one to a very little girl and the other to an older woman. So many of the girls wanted them. It was a special experience, but I wished I could have brought all of them home to my wife.

Moving along, the next day we flew to Beijing for a day off revisiting the winter cold. Quite a difference from where we were. The Minzu Hotel is an older establishment with smaller rooms on W Chang'an Ave, a main drag with Tiananmen Square only a few minutes away by walk. Breakfast the next morning was another plethora of delectable delights. One of the young lady staffers helped me with making a cappuccino and then gave me her business card. Phoebe Long's position was noted as Appetite Assistant Manager. Damn!

The next day we were treated to yet another private dining for lunch. Seated at a large round table with a spinning upper shelf which are common in Chinese restaurants (we call a Lazy Susan or dumbwaiter), we rotated it to retrieve the many dishes that were presented. Included were chicken feet of which only I, in addition to our Chinese hosts, partook. No biggie for me as I grew up eating chicken feet.



Our last show was another repeat. Full house, flowers at the end, and some smokin' jazz in between. Everyone was smiles as the tour drew to a close. The next morning, after breakfast, we headed to the airport for the trip home. Richie got away to his home in Germany without a hitch but the second snafu nailed the three of us. Cutting to the chase, we were on the plane for six and a half hours only to return to the terminal where we were shuttled to an overnight hotel. The next morning found success as we took off for the West.

My takeaways from the trip are that it's a huge country with an inexhaustible supply of humanity. And everyone I witnessed seemed totally intent upon doing their job to the best of their ability. In other words, no goofing around—even in CocoPark the kids were subdued relative to their American & European counterparts. Another interesting thing was how all our hotels were decorated to the max with Christmas decorations including American singers warbling holiday songs on the sound systems apparently catering to the western visitors.

Bottom line? I'm looking forward to a possible return visit.

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