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OCT-LOFT Jazz Festival: Shenzhen, China, October 8-23, 2012

OCT-LOFT Jazz Festival: Shenzhen, China, October 8-23, 2012
Ian Patterson By

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OCT-LOFT Jazz Festival
Shenzhen, China
October 8-23, 2012
The OCT-LOFT Jazz Festival, in Shenzhen, Gaungdong Province, is one of the youngest jazz festivals in China, yet in just two editions it has already established itself as one of the best. Financially, it can't compete with the Shanghai Jazz Festival, which for its 2012 edition attracted renowned jazz artists such as bassist Ron Carter, saxophonist Chris Potter and the Yellowjackets. Nevertheless, the quality of the music at the OLJF is not only high, but refreshingly eclectic, and the programming adventurous. Furthermore, in its aim to promote jazz and educate the Chinese public about jazz's history and its protagonists, as well as the current issues that influence and shape the music, the OLJF is perhaps unique among festivals, not only in China, but throughout Asia.

Just a few short years ago there were no jazz festivals in China. Suddenly, however, they seem to be popping up all over the place. Southern China in particular is home to at least eight festivals, all of which have started up inside the last three or four years—though outside of Beijing and Shanghai, there's not much in the way of a jazz scene.

Even Hong Kong-which hosted the fourth Hong Kong International Jazz Festival in October-comes up short according to Ng Cheuk Yin Sheng, player and founder of one of China's most original and progressive bands, the Hong Kong-based SIU2: "Around the world there is dance music, progressive music, house-there are different scenes," he says, "but in Hong Kong we don't have such a thing as a scene in any kind of music." So, why then the sudden appearance of so many jazz festivals in China?

Unlike in Europe and America, where funding for the arts has been severely reduced in recent years from both state and private sources, it seems that in China, sponsors not only have the money to support jazz festivals, but see the marketable potential in a country of 1.3 billion people (20% of the world's population) whose youth are hungry for music so long denied them.

The growth of the economy and rise of the great Chinese megacities is one of the great stories of our times, and Shenzhen is a case in point.

Riding in the passenger seat, enjoying a sight-seeing tour of the city, guided by Fei Teng, [below, left] co-curator of the OLJF along with Fei Tu [below, right], who, whilst no relation, is most certainly a kindred spirit—skyscrapers stretch endlessly every which way you look. Five-lane highways dissect the city. The architecture is modern and often striking. A mass of giant cranes perch atop countless buildings, highlighted against the skyline like a flock of predators from a Jules Verne work of fiction, waiting to swoop. The scale is dramatic. "This was all rice fields thirty years ago," Fei Teng states as a matter of fact.


It's unbelievable, but true. As late as the 1970s, Shenzhen was a town of 30,000 people, farmers mostly, who tended the surrounding rice paddies. Then, in 1979, Shenzhen was declared a Special Economic Zone, due to its strategic position on the coast, just an hour from Hong Kong. Massive Chinese and foreign investment followed. As an experiment in state-controlled capitalism, it has been a resounding success.

A little more than 30 years later, Shenzhen is one of the biggest cities in the Pearl River delta, with an official population of over 10 million people. I was told that this figure is probably very conservative, as there are said to be over 50 million registered mobile phone numbers in Shenzhen. Fei Teng laughs at my incredulity: "Fifty houses are built every day here," he says.

Shenzhen has the world's fourth-busiest container port after Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong, and is one of the largest manufacturing centers in the world. It's the new China personified-growing at a dizzying speed, high-tech, dynamic and positive. It's also surprisingly green. There are plenty of parks. Trees and flowering bushes line the roads and a veritable army is employed in keeping the streets clean, trimming and pruning the greenery. Motorbikes are banned. Even in the most built-up residential areas, trees hold their own.

The two Fei's used to run a popular blues bar downtown, but the landlord, sensing a killing, bumped up the rent, thereby guaranteeing a different kind of killing- a terminal one for the venue. The privately sponsored OLJF, thankfully, looks like it has legs to run. The festival team is dedicated, the program is musically stimulating, and the venue is idyllic.

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