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Shanghai Gets Jazzed up

It was a Wednesday evening at the Cotton Club. All seats were taken by a mixed audience of Chinese and foreigners, watching a multinational jazz band playing, oblivious to the continuous slight shuddering of the metro trains passing underneath.

As the 24-year-old singer Zhao Ke - more widely known as Coco - graced the stage at 10:30 pm in his tight snakeskin-pattern short-sleeved shirt and pants to join the band, the excitement rose among the expectants.

Coco first presented his own crooning and sexy rendition of "But Beautiful" and then chanted the song "The Girl from Ipanema."

While singing, he left the stage and moved among the audience. And the audience was far from unappreciative. There was much interaction and tacit understanding between the performers and audience.

The success of the Cotton Club is a great leap forward from a few years ago.

Feng Yucheng, 24, the club trumpeter, clearly remembered what it was like to play jazz in Shanghai then.

"When I arrived at a bar to perform, I often found people there playing Japanese-style karaoke or singing the local Huju Opera episodes."

Quite often, people asked him what he would do with his trumpet. "Jazz," Feng answered.

And many seemed puzzled and asked him "What is it?"

Now there are two dozen jazz musicians playing in several bars, adding musical diversity to the city that never sleeps.

The city's love affair with jazz is not a new phenomenon. There has always been a huge latent demand for Western music in Shanghai, China's most cosmopolitan city.

Jazz was all the rage here in the 1930s and 1940s, when the city was acclaimed the jazz capital of Asia.

But, beginning in the 1950s, dancing halls started to be closed in Shanghai and jazz disappeared.

It was only in 1980 when the Peace Hotel set up the Old Jazz Band that live jazz was once again played.

Zhou Wanrong, the 80-year-old trumpeter and band leader of the Peace Hotel's Old Jazz Band, said: "At that time, there were many Filipino jazz bands. They were crowd-pullers.

"In those days, many people crammed to listen to the music - rich Chinese, compradors, university students, Kuomintang officials and taxi-drivers and American soldiers," said Zhou, his eyes sparkling with excitement.

Some Chinese honed their skills by playing in foreign bands and watching American movies.

"We watched Harry James movies and played all the songs from the movies," Zhou said. "Louis Armstrong, Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman - oh, we loved them."

With the closure of dance halls in the early 1950s, jazz musicians joined State-run music troupes. Zhou joined the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra.

It was in 1980 that Zhou and several others were called out from their retirement to rekindle the old Shanghai flame at the Peace Hotel to attract tourists.

Today, from among the missing teeth and white hair of the Peace Hotel's Old Jazz Band flow sentimental favourites from wartime America and they transport listeners to the Shanghai of old.

Their tired and passionless rendition of songs that have been repeated a thousand times over conjures up images of a long lost era - it constitutes a tourist scene rather than a musical event.

However, it was several American jazz musicians - not the members of the Old Jazz Band - who inspired a handful of young Chinese musicians to take an interest in jazz.

Americans Jake Alpren and Scott Silverman went to the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and helped set up Shanghai's first modern jazz band Five Guys On A Train in 1994.

Feng and Coco were both 17 when they first heard jazz. And they began to learn from the band and sometimes play in it.

"It was love at first sound," said Coco. "I found something in my body became aroused. I know it was the instinct of jazz."

Feng soon attended the conservatory. But the conservatory only offers classes in classical music.

"It was hard," recalled Feng.

With no other jazz band to inspire them, local musicians resorted to listening to the few jazz tapes and CDs they could find.

"The first CD I got was Miles Davis' 'Kind of Blue,' which is still my favourite CD," said Feng. "My favourite trumpet players are Chet Baker, Clifford Brown and Roy Hargrove."

At that time, jazz was almost unheard of to a young audience. The band at the Cotton Club had to throw in some Hong Kong and Taiwan pop songs to please the crowds. "Only then would they applaud," said Feng.

These Chinese jazz musicians are like sponges when it comes to soaking up musical knowledge from foreign jazz musicians. Coco said he learned a lot from Matthew Harding, the jazz composer and musician from the United States who once performed at the Cotton Club.

Sometimes they would go to the lounge bar at the Portman Ritz Carlton Shanghai Hotel to sit in and play with the Phil Morrison Trio, who first came to Shanghai in November 1999.

For the city's nouveau riche young people, it might be trendy to enjoy or pretend to enjoy jazz since the music is played at a few posh and expensive hotel bars.

Many come to see and be seen - not for the music. Some regard it as a symbol of wealth or something slick and fashionable.

Morrison said: "Many guests are not jazz fans and we are aware of it. So our music is not as hardcore jazz as what we might play in a concert or for a strictly jazz audience.

"We play some pop songs and some traditional Chinese songs which the audience enjoy, such as 'Only You In My Heart (Chinese title: The Moon Represents My Heart)'."

But Morrison added: "However, there are more and more people coming to listen to jazz and many are serious jazz fans." At the Cotton Club, about 60 per cent are Chinese and 40 per cent Westerners, Feng said.

In Shanghai, a city where different types of music compete for listeners, jazz provides a rare option.

Some young people's interest in it is genuine. Catering to the trend, Shanghai University even opened an elective course in jazz appreciation last year.

Li Peng, the teacher of the jazz-appreciation class, said: "I never expected 180 students would come to my class. Students are fascinated when I play jazz CDs."

It was noteworthy that it was only in 1999, his last year at the Xi'an Conservatory of Music, that Li met American jazz musician Elliot Billes and began to explore this American music.

Now he is fostering an interest among young students.

Most jazz musicians in Shanghai are non-locals who were students of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Feng is from Sichuan in Southwest China and Coco from Hunan in Central China.

Coco quit the conservatory in his last year and became a freelance singer.

While Feng, after graduation, did not go to a music troupe or a music school to teach. Instead, he too became a freelance artist and he plans to study jazz in the United States in a few years. To both of them, jazz is a lifestyle as well as a profession.

However, very few musicians come to Shanghai from outside the city limits. Shanghai may regain its status as an international city but its pull to artists still comes second to Beijing, where there are more than 70 jazz musicians.

"Jazz is something free, just like the air we breathe," said Coco. "It requires a free spirit.

"Very few people have that free spirit. You know, the Chinese have their sets of rules to follow in their life."

In Shanghai, where people are known for their prudence as well as pride, it is still hard for these jazz musicians to compete for attention against simpler forms of music such as pop songs.

And Chinese people tend to love sweet, harmonious and pretty melodies, and there are some uncertainties or unstable elements in some jazz pieces.

Keith Williams, pianist of the Morrison Trio, said: "Jazz is an improvising music and the performer is composing at the same time he or she is performing."

Feng observed: "Jazz gives the performer lots of freedom. It is free, open and individualistic music."

Despite the difficulties, jazz musicians in Shanghai work hard to inspire more fans and compose their own pieces in Shanghai.

Phil Morrison has added some oriental touches in jazz pieces he has composed in Shanghai.

These include "China Skies," "In A Chinese Tea Garden" and "Shanghai Silver."

In "The Day The World Came Together" - co-written by Morrison and Williams about the September 11 attacks on the United States - the erhu, a traditional Chinese two-stringed fiddle, is used.

The two musicians were both in Shanghai then and they said the erhu is good at expressing feelings of deep sorrow and thoughtfulness.

Some Chinese jazz musicians have been invited to perform abroad. Coco has travelled abroad and to some other Chinese cities to perform.

Coco is now working on two CDs. In one CD, he is trying to mix electronic music and jazz with Chinese traditional instruments in his own jazz pieces. In another CD, he will give his own renditions of jazz pieces from old Shanghai.

"I have decided to make jazz my lifelong profession," said Coco.

"As a jazz singer, I no longer feel lonely as there is now a stable group of us.

"Jazz is still developing too slowly in Shanghai. It should be faster and faster."

(China Daily February 25, 2002)

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