NOW AVAILABLE: Dennis Rea's long-awaited book,
Live at the Forbidden City: Musical Encounters in China and Taiwan,
is now available for purchase at iUniverse, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.com and orderable through bookstores.
Purchase Live at the Forbidden City at Barnes & Noble
(Portions of this article originally appeared in CHIME: Journal of the European Foundation for Chinese Music Research, and Earshot Jazz.)
In November 1996 LAND, a Seattle-based instrumental music group that combines elements of modern jazz, free improvisation, electronic music, and various world music traditions, made a concert tour of China, Hong Kong, and Macau. Founded by noted composer and keyboardist Jeff Greinke, the touring edition of LAND also included guitarist and tour organizer Dennis Rea, trumpet player Lesli Dalaba, percussionists Greg Gilmore and Bill Moyer, and Chapman stick player George Soler, a veteran of Taiwan's progressive music scene.
This was the third concert tour of China I'd undertaken, having previously performed in Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, Kunming, and Guangzhou with the Taiwan-based expatriate group Identity Crisis and the Seattle-based Vagaries in 1991. Unlike both earlier tours, which were fraught with all manner of logistical and bureaucratic headaches, the LAND tour was rewarding on many levels, both musically and in terms of audience response and collaboration with local artists. Bringing this particular group to China was a deliberately risky venture, with its odd blend of decidedly non-commercial musics; but to our surprise, audiences reacted favorably everywhere we played, even to our more experimental excursions. Considering that this may have been the first time this type of music was performed in China, the openness of Chinese audiences to such an unfamiliar listening experience reflected poorly on our own country's supposedly more informed and open society.
The ostensible purpose of LAND's trip to China was an appearance in the 1996 Beijing International Jazz Festival. The festival, which featured 20 ensembles representing 10 different countries and as many approaches to improvised music, was a striking example of just how quickly contemporary music had evolved in China since I'd first played there in 1989.
Origins of Jazz in China
At that time, jazz was virtually nonexistent outside a tiny circle of musicians and cognoscenti. The only working Chinese jazz group to speak of was Shanghai's Peace Hotel Jazz Band, a relic of the city's notorious heyday as "Paris of the East." Before the revolution, the group was a fixture at one of the most opulent European hotels in the Far East. Mao changed all that, and when the hotel's foreign patrons fled China after 1949, the jazzmen fell on hard times. As purveyors of a decadent foreign artform and court entertainers to the imperialists, the Peace Hotel Jazz Band epitomized the class enemy in communist China.
Ironically, after decades of forced inactivity the now superannuated musicians saw their careers revived during the tourist boom of the 1980s, when they were reinstalled in the ballroom of the expensively refurbished Peace Hotel on Shanghai's Bund. I saw them play there while traveling in early 1989. A sextet comprising trumpet, two saxophones, piano, bass, and drums, the Peace Hotel Jazz Band proffered an anemic variety of nostalgic lounge music with little, if any, genuine improvising. Still, "real" jazz or not, the group was a big hit with the large crowds who showered the musicians with cash, drinks, and cartons of Marlboros between sets every night.
The first evidence I came across of a nascent jazz movement among younger Chinese was pianist Gao Ping's 1988 tape "Jazz in China," in all probability the first indigenous jazz recording made in the country since 1949. Released by the state-run China Record Company, "Jazz in China" was a curious melange of mostly non-jazz material, ranging from Cantopop melodies to the "Theme from Love Story," fom bubbly synthesizers to sampled operatic tenors. While the recording did display jazz sensibilities, with a fair measure of improvisation and identifiable jazz harmonies, it was a far cry from what jazz partisans in the West would consider jazz. This was hardly surprising, considering the scarcity of authentic jazz recordings in China, official disapproval of this "degenerate" artform, and above all a predisposition in modern China against the type of spontaneous expression embodied in jazz.
Fast-forward to 1996. Just eight years after the release of Jazz in China, the four-year-old Beijing International Jazz Festival draws nearly 10,000 listeners to the state-of-the-art 21st Century Theater for seven nights of cutting-edge jazz played by Chinese and major international artists. The event is extensively covered by local, national, and international media, and in a striking reversal of Chinese musical mores, audiences warmly applaud even the thorniest musical explorations of such avant-garde stalwarts as drummers Han Bennink and Tony Oxley, pianist Misha Mengelberg, and trombonist George Lewis. After the festival wraps up, many of the musicians go on to participate in the first Shanghai International Jazz Concert Series; similar events are planned for the cities of Hangzhou and Dalian in 1997. Meanwhile, a dozen or more jazz bars have sprung up in Beijing, where highly competent Chinese jazz bands improvise confidently and swing hard. Indeed, a joke circulating in Beijing goes that every local night club seeking to boost its hipness quotient simply adds the words "jazz bar" to its name.
How is one to account for this sudden vogue for jazz in China? One obvious reason is that the country's entry into the global marketplace has brought freer access to imported recordings and consequently greater public awareness of jazz and other foreign musical styles. A second factor is the continued suppression of live rock music, which has driven frustrated rockers to turn to jazz, seen as a much less threatening form of musical expression by the powers that be. Another consideration is the growing perception among nouveau-riche Chinese of jazz as a "classy" lifestyle accoutrement -- background music for the chic bars and coffeehouses springing up in most Chinese cities.
Most of the credit is due, however, to jazz promoters such as the organizers of the Beijing Jazz Festival, who have given the Chinese listening public their first real taste of serious live jazz. Not only has the festival itself become a huge success, but important artists like Bill Laswell, John Zorn, the Brecker Brothers, and the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band have recently traveled to China for well-received concerts and club appearances.
The Beijing International Jazz Festival
The Beijing Jazz Festival was founded in 1993 by Udo Hoffmann, a longtime member of the city's expatriate business community with a passion for modern jazz. Hoffmann's involvement with the Chinese music scene dates from the formative days of Beijing rock in the late 1980s, when he was instrumental in organizing the now-legendary "parties" where budding Chinese rockers were given a chance to perform away from official scrutiny. In the early 1990s Hoffmann, recognizing a growing interest in jazz among Chinese musicians and listeners, drew on his musical expertise and contacts among the international jazz community to launch China's first jazz festival. From the start, festival organizers made a point of covering the entire continuum of jazz styles, from Dixieland to free improvisation. Such musical catholicity would be unusual in any major jazz festival, much less a festival in communist China.
The inaugural Beijing International Jazz Festival took place in 1993 at the 700-seat Beijing Children's Theater. Co-sponsored by the Goethe Institute, the China International Culture Exchange Centre, and others, the festival proved so successful that organizers decided to make it an annual event. Performers in the 1994 and 1995 editions of the festival included the the madcap Willem Breuker Kollektief, the Clusone Trio, turntable terrorist Otomo Yoshihide, trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, and fusion violinist Didier Lockwood, as well as a number of Chinese jazz bands.
By 1996 the administrative burden of organizing such a large and diverse festival -- compounded, of course, by the ever-shifting vagaries of Chinese politics -- led Hoffmann to take on as his partner Robert Van Kan, the assistant cultural attaché at the Netherlands Embassy. Van Kan brought to the festival a comprehensive knowledge of modern music and years of experience in negotiating cultural exchange activities. The festival venue was shifted to the 1,400-seat 21st Century Theater, and numerous corporate and foreign government sponsors were recruited to help defray operational costs.
The resulting festival, the largest and most ambitious to date, was a resounding success. It was clearly the "in" place to be for culturally progressive Beijingers, and was a virtual sellout despite the (necessarily) steep ticket prices. Although a sizable number of foreign expatriates attended, the majority of the audience was Chinese. Musical highlights included the free improvising trio of Han Bennink, George Lewis, and Misha Mengelberg; Italian trumpet player Enrico Rava's adventurous adaptation of Bizet's "Carmen," abetted by the Beijing contemporary music group Ensemble Eclipse; the improvising trio Cercle (drummer Tony Oxley, pianist Dieter Glauwischnig, and violinist Andreas Schreiber); the slick multicultural fusion of French group Sixun; and the irreverent, crazy-quilt jazz of Denmark's New Jungle Orchestra.
But the biggest surprise was the number and quality of Chinese jazz musicians, whose instrumental skills and grasp of jazz idioms marked a major advance on earlier, tentative forays into the music such as "Jazz in China." In contrast to their adventurous foreign counterparts, however, the Chinese groups hewed closely to the traditional repertoire and standard head-solos-head structures; this musical conservativism was only natural, considering the musicians' relative inexperience playing jazz. Local groups included the Beijing Jazz Unit, a big band made up of Chinese and foreign expatriate musicians who played polished renditions of hoary jazz standards with competent if conservative soloing, a bright spot being imaginative pianist Liang Heping. Jazz-rock fusioneers Tian Square proffered their version of Jazz Lite, while Guys, featuring the impressive Jin Hao on saxophone, went in for a more reverent, "classic jazz" approach.
Saxophonist and hometown hero Liu Yuan, the only Chinese musician to have performed in all four editions of the festival, delivered a vigorous set of muscular bebop standards and originals with his piano-based quartet. Liu Yuan first attracted attention in the late 1980s as a member of Chinese rock icon Cui Jian's band ADO, contributing memorable saxophone and suona (a Chinese double-reed instrument) solos to massive hits like "Yi Wu Suo You" ("Nothing to My Name"). After immersing himself in jazz during a stay in Oregon in the early 1990s, Liu Yuan returned to China to pursue his muse and is now widely considered the elder statesman of Chinese jazz. He plays jazz several nights a week at clubs like the CD Café and continues to perform rock music with Cui Jian and others. (For more information, see jazz musician Tara Shingle's article on Liu Yuan.)
The MIDI Music School and Jazz Education in China
Many of the jazz and rock musicians now active in Beijing are alumnae of the MIDI Music School, reputedly the first independent music school in China dedicated to non-classical contemporary music. Established by Zhang Fan, with assistance from influential radio personality and modern music advocate Zhang Youdai, the MIDI school attracts young musicians from all over China who are eager to learn the instrumental skills necessary to play pop, rock, and jazz. Each year, the Beijing International Jazz Festival coordinates a series of master classes with the MIDI school, featuring visiting artists from around the world. Several members of LAND gave workshops at the school, a drafty, six-floor walkup crammed with more than 100 onlookers that afternoon. Why the school is named MIDI -- an acronym for Musical Instrument Digital Interface -- is a mystery, as it was difficult to find a single functioning electrical outlet. Operating on an extremely meager budget, the school is definitely a labor of love.
The majority of the audience at festival events had little or no previous exposure to jazz. To the uninitiated, listening to jazz -- especially in its more abstract manifestations -- is like trying to decipher an alien language. I have often been asked by Chinese listeners to explain what a particular piece of jazz music "means." This question is understandable in view of the fact that Chinese instrumental music has historically been either representative ("Moonlight in Spring Water"), programmatic ("Ambushed from All Sides"), or ceremonial, rather than existing as an abstract sonic event in its own right. But since most non-vocal jazz has no specific message to convey or story to tell, it is difficult to assign "meaning" to the music.
The confusion is further compounded by the multiplicity of styles gathered together under the imprecise banner of "jazz," which on the surface seem to have little in common aside from a greater or lesser degree of improvisation. To help newcomers better understand the music, longtime Beijing resident and jazz afficionado Loren Clarke has written a book, I Love Jazz, outlining the music's history and its diverse subgenres. A Chinese translation of the book, available for purchase at festival venues, will no doubt help foster a greater appreciation of jazz in China.
"Off Festival" Events
LAND's set at the jazz festival was unfortunately marred by the interminable grandstanding of the preceding act, German reed specialists Claudio Puntin and Stefan Schorn, who delayed our starting time a full hour and a half, too late for many in the fatigued audience. We made up for it two nights later when we jump-started an after-hours session at the Sunflower Club with a strong set by LAND, followed by wide-ranging improvisations involving LAND members and Beijing musicians such as Liang Heping, Liu Yuan, Cui Jian, and drummer Liu Xiaosong, plus trombonist George Lewis and other festival participants. A highlight of the evening was the spectacle of 74-year-old jazz jet-setter Trudy Morse ululating like a banshee while a drunken Chinese punk rocker shrieked along at the top of his lungs.
Throughout the week, festival concerts were followed by similar open sessions at Beijing night spots like the CD Café, Shadow Café, and the attractive San Wei bookstore near Tiananmen Square. These sessions gave festival guests and locals alike an opportunity to stretch out and interact with one another in a relaxed environment. The events were invariably standing-room-only affairs lasting well into the night, with expat businessmen and diplomats hauling out their rusty horns for 101 choruses of "Take the A Train." Disappointingly, there were few encounters between Chinese and visiting musicians.
Most of the official after-hours sessions defaulted to fusion and mainstream jazz, but improvisers of a different stripe found an outlet for their creativity when Wang Yong, one of the most innovative players of the guzheng (Chinese zither), hosted a series of group improvisations at his club Keep in Touch, reportedly the first Internet café in China. A recognized master of Chinese traditional music, Wang Yong is unusual in his willingness to explore disparate musical forms such as rock and jazz. His guzheng solo is one of the highlights of Cui Jian's haunting "False Itinerant Monk," and his recent CD for Taiwan's Rock Records, Samsara, is a promising blend of traditional Chinese and New Age styles.
For four consecutive nights Wang Yong extemporized fluently with improvisers from around the globe, including Han Bennink, Anthony Cox, Django Bates, Christof Lauer, Andreas Schreiber, and members of LAND, showing a remarkable ability to adapt to the various players' musical languages. These sessions were the realization of my long-held wish that Chinese traditional musicians would come forward and improvise with their counterparts from abroad. It's not unrealistic to hope that the Keep in Touch improvisations may have engendered a Chinese free-improvising scene. (The sessions were eventually released as a double-CD set, Free Touching: Live in Beijing at Keep in Touch, on the Hong Kong-based Noise Asia label.
Leaving Beijing, Land traveled by train to Hong Kong for a concert at the Fringe Club, the only local venue that regularly supports the experimental arts. I was especially excited to be doing a show in Hong Kong, not only because I had never played there before but because it would be a last chance to visit the erstwhile Crown Colony before it passed from British rule a half-year later.
I had always loved Hong Kong, but was perennially disappointed by its paucity of creative music, unusual for such an urbane, sophisticated metropolis. The cliché goes that in Hong Kong, money is everything, and this stereotype is certainly borne out by the glossy, overproduced Cantopop the city exports to China, Taiwan, and the rest of the Chinese world. But Hong Kong is also home to a small community of musicians and promoters who produce uncompromising modern music in the face of near-total indifference; indeed, much of the experimental music being made in Hong Kong is arguably far more radical than anything similar being done in China or Taiwan.
Land's Hong Kong concert was organized by Henry Kwok and Li Chin Sung, who as owners of the independent Sound Factory label are at the center of the city's underground music scene. Sound Factory's catalog includes CDs by Hong Kong fringe figures such as Nelson Hiu, industrial noisemeister Xper.Xr, and the group Dancing Stone, as well as compilations of East Asian rock and the quixotic 100-CD set "John Zorn and Yamantaka Eye Live in China." Sound Factory partner Li Chin Sung recently released a CD of his own sonic experiments, "Past," on John Zorn's prestigious Tzadik label. The company also promotes concerts by visiting avant-gardists such as Zorn, Otomo Yoshihide, and Fred Frith, usually at a loss.
Wang Yong flew down from Beijing to join us for the show, embroidering Land's compositions with striking guzheng solos and engaging in sensitive group improvisations. The music was inspired, but, typically for concerts of this kind of music in Hong Kong, only about 20 people showed up. I'm sure it didn't help that tickets cost nearly $30 U.S.
I wondered what would become of Sound Factory after Hong Kong's reversion to Chinese rule in 1997, when the company would become China's lone independent avant-garde music label literally overnight. Sadly, Henry Kwok has since reported that Sound Factory has gone bankrupt, so we may never know how the company might have fared in its new milieu.
After the Fringe Club concert we boarded a jetfoil for the Portuguese colony of Macau, where LAND was booked to open the festivities surrounding the Macau Book Fair, a multicultural event sponsored by the Instituto Portugues do Oriente. The concert took place in Macau's beautiful city square, the Largo do Senado, one of the most attractive public spaces in East Asia with its floodlit, exquisitely refurbished old Portuguese buildings. Here LAND performed for people from all walks of life, from Cantonese elders to little kids to a raving Portuguese madman. We were surprised and pleased at the warm response we received from the audience, made up mostly of curious passersby. For me, playing to such non-specialist audiences has always been one of the great pleasures of performing in China.
LAND percussionist Greg Gilmore, Largo del Senado, Macau 1996
Our host in Macau, João Pedro Costa, is co-founder of Music of the Fourth World, an organization dedicated to promoting new music in Macau. Music of the Fourth World regularly brings contemporary musicians of international stature to the tiny colony, often in cooperation with Hong Kong's Sound Factory. As host of an adventurous radio show, Costa has introduced thousands of listeners in Macau to unusual musics from around the globe. He is producer of the first-ever CD anthology of modern music from Macau, compiled from tapes of rock, pop, and techno music submitted by his listeners.
Costa and a group of like-minded Portuguese expatriates also operate Macau's cozy Jazz Club, hidden among the city's labyrinth of narrow lanes. The club is home to the 20-year-old Macau Jazz Festival, the longest-running jazz festival in East Asia outside of Japan. Despite its relatively low profile, the festival attracts top-notch modern jazz musicians to the colony, among them virtuoso trombonist Ray Anderson and Berlin-based pianist Aki Takase. The night after our concert in the square, LAND played to a packed house of Portuguese hipsters at the Jazz Club, delivering one of our best sets of the tour.
Back inside China, LAND flew to the southwestern city of Kunming for two semiprivate engagements at an upscale local bar. Earlier efforts to schedule a legitimate public concert had been quashed by local officials, despite my having performed at the city's National Defense Arena in 1991 with the approval of the provincial government. Apparently there had been a recent controversy involving foreigners in the province, so the local government was in no mood to rubber-stamp what was being billed inaccurately as a rock concert. This didn't seem to deter the club owner, who put up posters outside his establishment anyway.
Each of the shows was attended by about 300 people, including local artists, musicians, writers, radio personalities, and other creative folk. LAND played on a stage hung with a U.S. Marine Corps banner, our eyes assailed by blinding beams of laser light. Kunming was no longer the relaxed, provincial city I remembered from 1991, when I had played there with the Vagaries. Back then, we were told that our show was the first rock concert ever in Yunnan Province; now, according to local DJ and rock musician Shen Hui, dozens of rock bands were active in the city, many of them influenced by Seattle grunge bands like Soundgarden and Nirvana.
One afternoon the remarkable modern painter Mao Xu Hui arranged for our group to visit a compound in the nearby countryside where young musicians from Yunnan's Yi, Naxi, Hani, and Tibetan nationalities worked to preserve their endangered musical traditions. We were treated to a program of stirring songs and dances, and were able to reciprocate when a busload of the young musicians came down to the city that night to take in our concert. Unfortunately, the front-row seats we'd reserved for the minority musicians were commandeered by slick businessmen who downed expensive drinks and carried on loudly throughout our set.
The final stop on LAND's tour was Chengdu, where my Chinese musical juggernaut had started back in 1989. Everywhere we'd been in China we were amazed at the rapid pace of change, but it came as a shock to find my onetime home transfigured almost beyond recognition. Like most Chinese cities, Chengdu had been radically changed by relentless development, with all the attendant traffic and environmental woes. In just seven years, historic neighborhoods of narrow lanes and half-timbered houses had given way to a forest of skyscrapers, and miles of the surrounding paddy country had been swallowed up by runaway construction. High-class restaurants, luxury hotels, karaoke palaces, and brew pubs were ubiquitous; where bicyclists had once pedaled at a leisurely pace, a roaring torrent of automobiles now raced endlessly by. The disappearance of the Chengdu I had known and loved deeply depressed me, but I soon realized that my indulgence in nostalgia was mere selfishness, for without exception my old friends were better off materially than ever before.
The city's newfound prosperity had also brought a leap in sophistication; I'd never have imagined in 1989 that I would one day find a translation of John Cage's treatise "The Future of Music" in a Chengdu bookstore. Amazingly, a reggae bar had opened in the city, and the jazz virus had hit Chengdu, too; we were booked to open the city's first jazz bar while in town.
LAND played a large invitational show at the brand-new Rhinoceros Garden resort in suburban Pixian, a strikingly bourgeois recreational complex complete with golf course, tennis courts, and all manner of upscale amenities. It seemed an unlikely place for a concert of experimental jazz-rock, but the owners were gambling on our drawing a sizable number of the city's literati and media figures, who would then report favorably on the resort. (A free banquet and libations no doubt helped oil the publicity machine.) The concert organizers even arranged free minibus shuttle service from Chengdu to Pixian for concertgoers. It was the LAND's last and perhaps best show, as Jeff Greinke had to leave for Seattle the following day. After our set, the patrons got up and danced into the wee hours to videos of the Eagles.
The final two shows of the tour were performed by Nada, a subgroup of LAND specializing in a different style of instrumental music. Nada christened the first jazz bar ever in Chengdu, the New Orleans Jazz Pub, which opened its doors three weeks ahead of schedule just to accommodate us; indeed, a crew of carpenters and electricians worked furiously right up to showtime to ready the club for its grand opening. The crowd was primed with a set of tepid, lock-step standards played by Chengdu's first jazz group, made up of dance band veterans with no prior experience playing jazz - a brave effort under the circumstances. Nada then played to a noisy, packed house, presided over by a mural of B. B. King. The show was recorded and later broadcast by Chongqing Radio.
As concert tours of China go, this one was remarkably hassle-free. The tour actually broke even - no mean feat in China - and when the value of the services, accommodations, meals, and air tickets provided by our hosts is tallied up, what we received in hospitality is incalculable. Every musician wishes they were treated with half the graciousness we were shown; I only hope that one day I will have opportunities to do the same for visiting Chinese musicians.
Much of the credit for the tour's success goes to our tour manager Tang Lei, a tireless worker for cultural exchange. Had we tried to organize such a tour along official lines, it would never have gotten off the ground; instead, everything was made possible through the cooperation of creative artists and ordinary people who wanted to help make something special happen in their city.
As the millenium draws to a close, jazz shows no signs of slowing in China. Unlike the once-idealistic Chinese rock scene, which in an amazingly short time became thoroughly vitiated by the same commercial mandates that compromised its Western counterpart, the Chinese jazz phenomenon may well point the way to a truly creative union of Chinese and global musical sensibilities. With its open structures, jazz is intrinsically better able to accommodate elements of non-Western musics; indeed, much of the ethnic fusion so popular in the West today can arguably be traced to earlier world-music forays by jazz artists like Don Cherry and the group Oregon.
A growing number of Chinese traditional musicians are exploring cross-cultural improvised music, among them Wang Yong and pipa virtuosi Wu Man and Min Xiao-fen, collaborators with such influential figures as American jazz innovator Henry Threadgill and British free-improv icon Derek Bailey. Meanwhile, in the jazz motherland of the United States, a distinct Asian jazz subgenre has emerged in the 1990s to widespread critical acclaim. Chinese-American jazz musicians such as pianist Jon Jang, reed player Fred Ho, violinist Jason Hwang, and bassist Francis Wong are reclaiming their musical origins and finding ways to integrate Chinese instruments and musical concepts into jazz. While some of these musical mergers sound forced, in most cases the admixture of Asian music and jazz has yielded fascinating results.
Completing the circle is the "Jazz and East Asian Traditions" concert series planned for the 1997 Beijing International Jazz Festival. Featuring such potent role models as Jang, Hwang's poly-Asian improvising ensemble the Far East Side Band, and Nguyên Lê's Tales from Vietnam, these concerts will no doubt inspire a new generation of Chinese musicians to explore ways of reconciling their age-old tradition with contemporary global musical currents.
© 2006 Dennis Rea