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That Slow Boat to China: How American Jazz Steamed Into Asia

That Slow Boat to China: How American Jazz Steamed Into Asia

Courtesy HKW Berlin


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...Imitation, to integration, then innovation.
—George Banks, Nepalese Trumpeter
A kind of jazz was already waiting in Asia when American players arrived in the 1920s, close to a hundred years ago. However, it was imitative and incomplete, lacked authenticity and live performers from the U.S. Those ingredients became imported by musicians who had played with the likes of King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, Chu Berry, Josephine Bakerand W.C. Handy. Notably, Buck Clayton, later trumpeter for Count Basie, and Paul Gonsalves, who would find fame with Duke Ellington, were key artists who adventured East—not to New York and Europe, but to the Pacific Far East and India.

The gramophone and massive shipments of phonograph records laid fertile ground for jazz as the sound of modernism. Bodies touched anew with tango, then broke loose in a madness of movement. In hundreds of dancehalls, Filipino, Chinese, Japanese and émigré Russian musicians interpreted as best they could what they heard on records, and created their own flourishes. The Great Migration north out of the American South and the route West hadn't paid much attention to Asia. "I knew just as much about China as China knew about me," bandleader Whitey Smith recalled.

Smith had been a Danish immigrant knockabout who reinvented himself with an adopted name, first as a boxer and then as a drummer. It didn't take much persuading in 1922 for Shanghai entrepreneur Louis Ladow to lure Smith out of San Francisco music venues that wilted in Prohibition. Ladow offered him a one-year contract and a round-trip passage by steamship, a 3-week transit each way being the only means of transoceanic travel. "Just like that I said I'd take it." Whitey Smith, to his surprise, "was headed for China!"

African-American, Not Just American

Pianist Teddy Weatherford's wanderlust was similarly tapped by bandleader Jack Carter, who was recruiting in Chicago. Since 1924, Carter had been conducting cabarets of African-American and Filipino musicians in Shanghai. He sought more black Americans like himself, considered stylish and attractive, with first-hand sound. After his New Orleans apprenticeship, Weatherford—the grandson of a slave—had joined a territory band that traveled to Chicago. There were many opportunities there, and Weatherford joined Erskine Tate's Vendome Orchestra, which included a cornetist named Louis Armstrong. Together they recorded "Static Strut" and "Stomp Off! Let's Go" under Tate for Vocalion in May 1926, with solo and ensemble prominence for Weatherford and Armstrong.

In Chicago, Weatherford was just fractionally behind another young pianist, Earl Hines, with a stride style evocative of Fats Waller. Among his other young associates were Maceo Pinkard, composer of "Sweet Georgia Brown," and saxophone master Chu Berry. Armstrong's star was rising: he had already recorded with his Hot Fives and with Fletcher Henderson. Weatherford hungered for wider renown too. Carter pitched Weatherford on the royal treatment he would receive in Asian ports, in contrast to the travails of black musicians in the United States.

By the time Weatherford left San Francisco at the end of August 1926, Carter had compiled a proficient ensemble. From King Oliver's Dixie Syncopators he drew Albert Nichols on clarinet and Billy Paige on alto sax; Frank Ethridge, on violin, guitar, and banjo from Tate's Vendome Orchestra; Valaida Snow, a 22-year-old from Tennessee who had been in Noble Sissle's "Chocolate Dandies" revue on Broadway in New York with a teenaged Josephine Baker, and Valaida's sister Lavaida, also a singer-dancer and violinist.

In comparing disparate equals, Valaida Snow on trumpet is widely considered the female Louis Armstrong. Furthermore, she could sing, play numerous other instruments, dance in a multitude of styles, and was beautiful. With Valaida Snow as headliner, that autumn Carter's orchestra opened at Shanghai's Plaza Hotel.

As Ladow, Carter, Smith, and then Weatherford each learned more about China, they in turn drew others over the waters. In 1934 Weatherford rescued trumpeter Buck Clayton and His Harlem Gentlemen, a group of twelve who had never actually been east of Kansas City, from abandonment in Los Angeles after a hotel engagement ended with no next date and their manager departed with their bankroll. China offered a change of scenery and an opportunity in the midst of the Great Depression.

Opulence in the Orient

On Whitey Smith's arrival in Shanghai, he was booked into Ladow's Carlton Café, then quickly upgraded into the Majestic Hotel and then the Astor House. Each venue had progressively more grandiose visions. Core "Elite 400" European and American guests understood classical ballroom music and some of the new beats, but to grow the new music it needed to be more accessible to all. Smith needed to draw bigger crowds to cover management's overhead.

Smith is credited with teaching China how to dance. He simplified his melody lines, retreating from complex harmonies and syncopated orchestrations that enthralled but confused audiences. He also incorporated Chinese folk elements into his repertoire, and Chinese gongs and cymbals in his recordings.

Smith's venues at the Astor House and the Majestic dripped in opulence. The Astor House had an oak parquet floor in circular sunburst florets. Its bandshell was in the shape of a peacock fan, centered amid mirrored walls and columns or sculpted maidens. A revolving lighting cylinder added sparkling shades of color. The Majestic's ballroom held 800 guests and was made of marble. At its center was a fountain of marble and bronze, with a rising mermaid. Ornate Greco-Roman statuary connected to the heritage of Western civilization of which ballroom dancing had become representative.

Smith played in the Majestic at the wedding reception of Chiang Kai-Shek, soon to become president of the Nationalist Republic of China, on December 1, 1927. The ballrooms of Shanghai's International Settlement and the French Concession were largely shielded for a time from the violent political and military turmoil that would lead to civil war between Nationalists and Communists, a Japanese invasion, and World War Two.

Transposing Arrangements

Jack Carter had originally signed for a ten-week engagement with Teddy Weatherford, Valaida Snow, and the others, but extended almost a full year into late 1927. They next toured the East Indies (now Indonesia) and Singapore, before Carter and the Snow sisters returned to the U.S.

Valaida Snow joined Earl Hines' Sunset Café stage show back in Chicago, before going on to musicals in Europe, Russia, and the Middle East after 1929. She returned to New York in 1931, once again on Broadway as singer in "Rhapsody in Black" and conductor of the 60-piece stage orchestra. Snow died in 1956, still working and waiting to go onstage at the Palace Theater in New York, from a brain hemorrhage. In "Overlooked No More," obituaries for significant persons who passed unobserved, the New York Times corrected its oversight of her in February 2020 as part of Black History Month.

Teddy Weatherford rates in All Music as one of the best pianists no one has ever heard of. He spent almost all of his career in the Pacific with significant terms in India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He recorded on regional labels that were mostly unnoticed back in the United States where domestic bands produced an abundance of product. Some gems are to be found in the Vocalion discs; in sides produced by Hugues Panassie for the 1937 Paris International Exposition, particularly a solo "My Blue Heaven;" and a variety of titles on the Columbia India label.

Weatherford stayed on in Shanghai after Carter and Snow departed, working with classically-trained Russian emigres who had excellent mechanical skills, as well as Filipinos with particularly good ears, Indonesians, and Japanese. In 1929 Weatherford moved into the Canidrome, a massive complex with gambling halls and three ballrooms alongside a 50,000 seat stadium for greyhound racing, and presided there for five years.

Buck Clayton joined Weatherford in 1934 and remained in China for two years. He began with Weatherford and his own orchestra and several variety acts at the Canidrome, but lasted only six months. His contract was terminated after a racially-motivated fight started by a sucker punch from one Jack Riley, a caucasian American gambling kingpin, who subsequently took a beatdown from Clayton's crew.

Clayton was demoted into another Louis Ladow cabaret, the Casanova. The Casanova had no cover charge and sought a less grand crowd of soldiers, sailors, and middle-class Chinese. A scaled-down floor show presented a pair of dancers from the U.S. and a trio of singer-dancers from Hungary. The club openly promoted availability of its "young, beautiful" hostesses, newly arrived from Japan and Korea, to join patrons for dancing and companionship. It emphasized that one need not be lonely even if alone.

Musically, Clayton transposed Chinese tones into western scales for this more varied audience through composer Li Jinhui. That influence remained in Clayton's moderated sound as lead trumpet for Count Basie's Kansas City band 1936 to 1943, and thereafter. Li Jinhui learned in the exchange as well. Transposing western scales, he created a Chinese popular style that the orchestras of India's Bollywood cinema later drew upon for grandeur and drama. Li Jinhui built from folk origins, but was derided as being common, and his sensual style scorned as decadent and corrupt. He died in 1967, a prisoner of the Maoist Cultural Revolution.

Soundscape and Diaspora

In 1922, New York Times writer Burnet Hershey filed an account of jazz's transmission across the Pacific. It's a different map and soundscape than the main narrative of New York to Europe and from there around the world. Hershey picks up the music in Hawaii, and then sweeps to Japan, the Philippines, China, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, to India and Calcutta (now Kolkata), and then on to Egypt and across the Mediterranean. He notes an influence from Paris in French Indochina (now Vietnam).

Shanghai was featured in many popular songs, an imagined distant fantasy more than any known reality. "From Here to Shanghai" by Irving Berlin was recorded in New York by Al Jolson in 1916 for Columbia. "Shanghai Shuffle," still a popular archival number, was recorded in 1924, also in New York. by Fletcher Henderson with Louis Armstrong on a muted trumpet and Coleman Hawkins on saxophone. Sam Wooding recorded the piece in Berlin in 1925, on tour with his Chocolate Kiddies Revue that went across Europe to Istanbul, Moscow, and Leningrad, but never to Shanghai itself. When Victor released Whitey Smith's "Nighttime in Old Shanghai" in 1928, at least he had really been there.

In Shanghai, diplomats, international businessmen, economic aristocrats, social elites, swells, fortune hunters, and adventurers crowded nightclubs and ballrooms in the commercial hub that was awash with money. Even the American Chamber of Commerce there today confirms that the party "roared." White Russians fled Bolsheviks, Jewish refugees escaped Nazis. Youth, glamor, freedom, excitement; and the displacements of war, economics, and migration met across gender, nationalities, and class in an intoxicating swirl. "Countesses" became courtesans of necessity to feed their families. Cabaret hostesses, hired companions, dance partners, taxi dancers, sing-song girl guides, and unconcealed prostitution were entertainments in the dance environment. At all levels, the bands provided the beat to the turkey trot, the fox trot, the shimmy, the Charleston, and a variety of one-step innovations.

Swinging Past Colonialism

Amid increasing geopolitical violence, Shanghai and Asia became more precarious. Buck Clayton left Shanghai in 1936 just ahead of a Japanese bombardment of the city. Whitey Smith moved to the Philippines and opened a club, but was incarcerated in a Japanese prison camp during the height of World War Two. Upon his release, he remained in Manila for the rest of his life.

In 1935, after the Buck Clayton brawl, Teddy Weatherford decamped to Raffles in Singapore and then Indonesia. Trumpeter Crickett Smith, Chicago saxophonist Roy Butler who had toured Europe and South America, and vocalist Creighton Thompson were already there. Smith had played with James Reese Europe before World War I; Thompson had sung with Europe's segregated army band "Harlem Hellfighters" on their 1919 recording "Jazz Baby." Thompson had held over in Europe, but left in 1934 as Germany prohibited non-Aryans from radio and theaters.

In India Crickett Smith joined well-travelled Minnesota violinist Leon Abbey, who in 1935 brought a band into the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay (now Mumbai) to great acclaim. Abbey had repeat seasonal engagements through 1939, when, afraid of the war, he left permanently to the U.S. Crickett Smith and his Symphonians with Creighton Thompson filled the intervals between Abbey's periodic departures from the Taj with light classical pieces, spirituals, jazz, and some minstrelsy. After that they travelled to Ceylon, Malaya, Singapore, and Indonesia where they met Weatherford and circled back together to Bombay. In 1937 Weatherford succeeded Crickett Smith as leader at the Taj, then rotated engagements between India, Ceylon, and Indonesia. The populations of empire, American and British military and colonial government officials and their women, were his core audiences.

In 1941 Weatherford settled in as solo pianist and bandleader at the Grand Hotel in Calcutta. Saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, stationed there as an army truck driver, sat in frequently. Weatherford was a robust and showy drinker; at the beginning of a cholera outbreak he did not refrain from the contaminated water at the Grand Hotel, and died in 1945, age 41.

Numerous local musicians trained under Weatherford and distributed themselves across south Asia to other ballrooms. Indian national Mickey Correa had substituted for another King Oliver clarinetist, Rudy Jackson, at the Taj Mahal Hotel with Weatherford, and went on to lead the band there for 21 consecutive seasons from 1939 to 1960. As Americans returned home after the war, Correa employed generations of players from the subcontinent who created much of the subsequent Indian music industry. There were trumpeters like Chic Chocolate (born Antonio Xavier Vaz) from Goa and George Banks (born Pushkar Bahadur) from Nepal, playing with tropical and Spanish elements, accents of polka and marching cadences, Li Jinhui melodies and harmonies, blending all that had circulated and been collected. George Banks related the progression as being from imitation, to integration, then innovation.

In 1934, Shanghai was the sixth largest city in the world, behind only London, New York, Tokyo, Berlin, and Chicago; fully European in its central architecture but surrounded by rough countryside. The grand "Paris of the Orient" was shuttered after 1949 and the communist revolution. Now it is again booming and with 24 million people is the third most populous city in the world. In 2019 Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra visited for the first time, recalling the legacies of Teddy Weatherford, Buck Clayton, Valaida Snow, and Li Jinhui. There is a subsidiary Jazz at Lincoln Center Shanghai venue on East Nanjing Road near where all the great ballrooms had been and some remain, like the Cathay, now the Fairmont Peace Hotel; the French Club, now the Okura Garden Hotel; and the Park Hotel, until 1963 the tallest building in the city.

A small library forms a basic reference for this jazz heyday. Shanghai Nightscapes and Shanghai's Dancing World by Andrew David Field and his blog "Shanghai Journals" reflect their titles. Demon Piano by Brendan L. Koerner tells the story of Teddy Weatherford's travels and mastery of dance piano stylings. Yellow Music by Andrew F. Jones details the creations of Li Jinhui and the exchange with Buck Clayton.

Jazz in China by Eugene Marlow contrasts freedom of expression in context and conflict with tradition and authoritarianism. Shanghai 1842-1949: The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City by Stella Dong tracks a society through British, Russian, Chinese, and Japanese wars to Communist takeover. Taj Mahal Foxtrotby Naresh Fernandes chronicles jazz in India. Just published, Louiz Banks: A Symphony of Love by Ashis Ghatak brings the legacy into present time: keyboardist and Indian film composer Louiz Banks was named after Louis Armstrong and is the son of Nepalese trumpeter George Banks who played under Teddy Weatherford. Whitey Smith's I Didn't Make A Million is a tote board of his life. Buck Clayton's Jazz World, his autobiography, was published in 1986. He died in 1991.

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