Liu Yuan, the CD Cafe, and Jazz in China

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Liu Yuan, the CD Cafe, and Jazz in China


The following article was written by Tara Shingle Buzash and with her kind permission it is published at . The original article can be found at

About Tara Buzash: B.A., East Asian Languages and Cultures, Lawrence University. Studied with Kenny Barron, Bevan Manson and John Harmon. Performed and taught jazz piano, ensemble and history at Beijing MiDi School of Music for one year; local solo performer; former accompanist for Susan Jaffe's ballet classes at the Princeton Dance and Theater Studio; accompanist for Hopewell Off-Broadstreet Theatre's musical production Hot'n Cole, fall 2004; one CD: Tara Buzash, solo jazz piano, 2005. Westminster Conservatory faculty since 2003. Visit Tara's homepage.

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Pure energy rushes at you when you swing open the doors at Beijing's CD Cafe, and you know you've found a Saturday-night hot spot. Candlelight stabs the darkness, while the waiters bustle their way through a packed floor of tables filled with a spirited, international crowd. But the heart of intensity beats on stage. Playing tonight, loud and alive, is the Liu Yuan Jazz Quartet.

The leader of this group wears a preppy outfit, glasses, and a mild-mannered expression, his head nodding an easy-going sway as the music swings. But he's in confident command of the tenor saxophone, and his playing reflects a highly educated, purposeful approach to the music.

Later, during the solos, he curiously slips off the stage to run a few errands. He heads back to the sound booth to adjust the switches. He exchanges hurried words with the waiters. Plenty of guests offer him a familiar hello, and he greets every one with a quick smile. But as the solos are winding down, he takes center stage again to re-enter the tune as if he'd never left.

See, the CD Cafe isn't just his weekend gig. He's also co-owner.

In a country where American jazz music has barely begun to reach the ears of the public, saxophonist and businessman Liu Yuan has emerged as a pioneer. Though it's his love for music that drives him, he understands what he has come to represent for China: "I am just a stone on China's road of jazz."

Liu Yuan was born in Beijing 40 years ago (he turned on Jan. 1, 2000) to a long line of well-known folk musicians. From early childhood, his father taught him to play the suona, a traditional Chinese flute-like folk instrument. At around eight years of age, he commenced a performing career with a spot in a government-run children's band.

He continued suona studies at the Beijing Art School, a place for aspiring professionals. "This school had Chinese and Western classical music, Chinese folk music, plays, opera. It had all kinds," Liu says. But, of course, it did not have jazz.

At 19, Liu graduated, and at that time everyone had to enter a danwei, or work unit. His was the Beijing Song and Dance Troupe. Playing the suona for their band, he was given opportunities to travel, both inside and outside of China. In 1978 and 1980, the troupe visited Europe, performing in Romania, France, and Switzerland, among other places. It was in a certain Romanian city near the Hungarian border that Liu and some friends first heard live the music that would change his life.

"There was a music group that performed," he recalls, "in a cafe where we went to eat one night. It was jazz. They had a sax, and things like that, and it was jazz. And we said..." Liu sucks in his breath at the memory. "...aiyo!"

"The sax made a very strong impression on me."

Liu's international travel provided valuable exposure to modern music that he could not hear in China. He had already seen some jazz performed in movies, but it packed little of the live effect. "It was when we left the country that we really saw [jazz]. In hotel lobbies, or in bars, it was all that kind of music, and it sounded really good. Every song sounded really good."

Liu had grown up to follow the traditions of his family and society with no question. Like everyone else in China, he had never considered his personal inclinations, likes or dislikes, when it came to his work and his music. "But," he says, "after the economic reform and opening started, young people all wanted to choose their own path of life." In the early '80s, Party Chairman Deng Xiaoping undertook to move China toward globalization and capitalism, and this gave mainland artists new opportunities to express their individuality. The time had come to decide what kind of music Liu Yuan himself wanted to pursue.

Recalling his thoughts, "I'd already played traditional music for a long time," he says. "If I wanted to change, if I liked something new and wanted to do it, at that time it would certainly be very difficult." Also, his father opposed the switch at first. "He didn't want me to just do it because everyone else was," says Liu, "but when he saw that I truly liked it, then it was all right." Despite objections from society, Liu and six other young musicians (one was present-day rock star Cui Jian) from the work unit formed a rock band.

When modern Western music began to enter China, it all entered at the same time -- there were no separate periods of development and growth in popularity for different genres. Liu and his core group of musicians used the term "rock" to mean "Western music," and the band experimented with pop, rock-and-roll, country, jazz, and plenty of others. "Everything was mixed together. We performed a little, but we really didn't have any idea," Liu admits. "Now, if you have a rock band and you do something that isn't rock, that doesn't work. If you have a rock band, you should play rock-and-roll. But then, we didn't understand."

Gradually, Liu gravitated toward the distinct jazz style. With financial help from his family, he had managed to buy a sax in 1984. The next obstacle, and one that presented far more difficulty, was finding a way to study jazz. There were no jazz teachers in China. There were no CD's yet, either, only tapes, and all he had was one Grover Washington album. So, with nothing but a saxophone, a jazz tape, and his own ears, Liu began to learn to play.

But Western music soon infiltrated China, and Liu had both foreign and Chinese friends who agreed to lend him tapes. "I listened to all kinds of tapes: popular music, pop, blues. I didn't understand any of them."

The Grover Washington album was Liu's original favorite. Later, he managed to acquire more tapes, including those of saxophonists Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Stan Getz. "There was a little of everything. I didn't understand what I heard, and I couldn't do it. When I first started, studying jazz and saxophone was very difficult. Little by little it came along."

Meanwhile, the CD Cafe opened four years ago to a literal smattering of applause -- weekend shows might draw one or two tiny tables full of people, Liu remembers. But it grew, and three or four months later it had become an established club. Its manager was searching for some good weekend acts, and upon discovering Liu at a small bar, invited him to come and play. The rest, as they say in the United States, is history.

Now, scanning the entertainment listings of popular Beijing newspapers, by Liu Yuan's name you'll see nothing less than "Beijing's most established jazz players" and "Hear the boss play jazz."

So how does Liu Yuan reach an audience which probably doesn't know what jazz music is? Many Beijing residents have never heard it. The answer, he believes, lies in the sincerity and quality of the performance.

"First, I want to be an artist. I want to make good music. I play, they listen, and it will certainly give them a feeling, or sense. If I perform well, they will hear it clearly. If you want to present something, but you yourself don't play clearly, the audience won't be able to know what you're presenting.

"Sometimes the audience doesn't know what jazz is, but if you earnestly take your good things and do them well, they will hear it. If you yourself don't care, it won't work. [When I perform] what I'm thinking is, how do I perfect this music? With the band, with drums and bass and piano, how do we do something better? More interesting? If the band has no interchange, I don't think the audience will hear or understand."

As any Trane fan will notice, Liu's principal inspiration is John Coltrane of the '60s. "I think it's very simple: I like the things he does. His performing language. His playing is hot, but it's also dark. It has that mood. But he also has such energetic, vigorous feeling. Of course, other performers do this sort of thing, but I prefer Coltrane. He takes it to a higher level." Liu also mentions Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, and Sonny Stitt. "Most of the ones I like are old. But I think the new ones sound good too."

Before long, Liu Yuan and the CD Cafe's original manager discovered they had similar goals for the Beijing music scene. Both would like to see more variety, more live music, and certainly more jazz. In May 1999, the two decided to pool their respective abilities into dual ownership, and Liu became manager of the Cafe.

Now, the CD Cafe hosts jazz, blues, and reggae performances four nights a week. One, of course, is the Liu Yuan Jazz Quartet -- one of very few jazz bands in China consisting of mainly Chinese (their drummer is Japanese). According to Liu, there are scarcely more than 10 Chinese jazz musicians actively performing in China today, and live, real jazz is only to be found in Beijing.

"I personally believe that outside of Beijing, there is no jazz in China. In Shanghai, it all comes from Beijing. In the U.S., there is blues, jazz, rock-and-roll, there's pop. It has everything. As for China, Shanghai just has pop and rock-and-roll. It doesn't have others."

Fans of the famous house band at Shanghai's Peace Hotel may disagree, but the issue would seem to depend on how "jazz" is defined. The Peace Hotel gentlemen play swing tunes in the jazz style of the '30s, but there is little or no improvisation. "Also, there's an atmosphere thing," Liu continues. "The Peace Hotel jazz is part of tourism. They just get up there and play a couple melodies, and then they're done. There are a lot of old jazz players in Beijing who are better than them.

"I respect them, but is it jazz? It's just not. You can't fake that." According to Liu Yuan's definition of "jazz," the music must include substantially thoughtful and unique improvisation. This level of individual expression flies in the face of millennia of Chinese conformist tradition.

Perhaps the difficulty of this task explains in part the slow growth of "real jazz" in China. Further, due to the intellectualism of the music, it is not always accessible to the general public. Pop music, simpler in structure, has caught the interest of more of China's youth. "People certainly haven't rejected jazz, but they haven't especially taken to it either," Liu says.

He notes several key differences among the Chinese audience's reception of jazz and pop. Jazz evokes a distinct feeling and perception, he believes, and a jazz audience's "sense of appreciation" needs to be relatively high in order to enjoy the music. Further, "jazz has a standard language. Actually, it's not casual." Listeners unaccustomed to jazz solos may not realize certain methods when they hear them, just as those who do not speak a foreign language can hear the overall sound but fail to understand what is being said.

Rhythm especially distinguishes jazz from popular music, says Liu. "You can quickly pick out the rhythm of popular music, it's convenient. Many people are not used to hearing jazz rhythm techniques. They are different, they are complicated, but very clear."

"So, this music," he continues, "I think it's very important. Jazz is very important to modern music. But in China, it hasn't yet developed. Jazz doesn't have a big effect on Chinese popular music."

Liu mentions two opportunities Beijing faces in order to build its jazz scene and general music environment: one is to strengthen music education, and the other is for Beijing residents to get out more often, since live music does much more for listeners than records.

"It's a lot better now than it was before," he says. "Before, [the public] didn't understand. Now they know a little. I think, regarding music, if the artists in Beijing like jazz and play more of it, and if later there are music schools with jazz departments, people will get to know jazz."

Liu believes that Chinese elementary school education does not place a strong enough emphasis on music. Consequently, present-day Chinese adults have not developed potential listening habits, and hearing live music represents a relatively small part of their lives.

Live music "provides direct, face-to-face communication," Liu says. "The audience can listen and look at the same time, so there are two perceptions. The music itself envelopes the performer and the audience. There's an interchange," he explains, that does not exist when people listen to recorded music.

For this reason, the CD Cafe plays an important role in Beijing: it offers a variety of quality live music. And for Liu Yuan, the Cafe provides an opportunity to broaden his work for the Beijing music scene. Both pursuits, giving concerts and running a music bar, plant him firmly in the path of Beijing's and China's musical development. "I think there's definitely no conflict between the two," he says.

In the future, Liu hopes the CD Cafe will have the money to invite more well-known musicians, especially Americans, to come play.

If he had the choice of any one jazz musician in the world to perform there, Liu would invite tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman. "A lot of people don't really understand jazz music, but when they see him perform, they would understand," he says. "A lot of people can accept his feeling and sense." But, he adds, he likes and admires many, many artists.

"I hope that in the future, jazz will be a part of Beijing, a part of this city's life," Liu says. "I think if there is jazz music in Beijing society or Chinese society, my heart and soul will be happy."

As for himself, Liu says, "I intend later to reach a more professional level. I think now I'm not professional enough ... I'll tell you what's in my heart. I don't want to make grand achievements. I just like it."

This story is based on my interviews of Liu Yuan in November 1999, while on a fall study-abroad program in Beijing, China.

written by Tara Shingle Buzash, Lawrence University '99. Visit Tara's homepage.


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